Exhibition pulls hiv positive out of their lonely plight

Following a battle with a deadly Aids-related brain infection a Dutch art enthusiast found 'power in vulnerability', commissioning and collecting works that deal with the deadly disease, pieces currently on show in Bangkok

In 2001, an Aids-related brain infection forced Han Nefkens to learn to eat, walk, speak, read and write all over again. What could have been a lonely and harrowing path to recovery wasn't, he says, because of the community he has become a part of as a collector and patron of the arts for more than a decade.

‘Aids is Good Business for Some’, Elmgreen and Dragset, 2011.

The title of his latest exhibition, currently on show at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre, reflects this sentiment and the message he wants to extend to all sufferers of HIV/Aids, "You are Not Alone: For the Same World We Share".

Mr Nefkens became interested in contemporary art in 1999, knowing he didn't want just to collect art but to share it. His background was in journalism, though, so he spent a year speaking to artists and gallery owners to find out how best to go about sharing his passion for contemporary art. Eventually he came to an agreement with the Centraal Museum in Utrecht, the Netherlands, so his future collection could be shown there on loan.

A dozen years later, Mr Nefkens has written two autobiographical novels and sees the intensity of his experience reflected in the world of art. He is no longer just a collector, but also a patron of the arts, with a dozen projects on the go, many of them through ArtAids, his initiative to create awareness of HIV/Aids issues through art.

Han Nefkens.

"You are Not Alone" is one of these projects. The works, from artists around the world including five from Thailand, form the beginnings of a conversation on Aids _ a prompt for further discussion. The artists on exhibition are from South Africa, Cyprus, Chile, Lithuania, Spain, Vietnam, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Morocco. Thai artists commissioned for the exhibition include Pratchaya Phinthong, Mute Mute, Ohm Phanpiroj, be>our>friend Studio and Sutee Kunavichayanont. Combined, the works on display introduce accounts of Aids, its impacts and social facets as well as the current realities of HIV infection around the world.

Brunch sat down with the collector and patron to speak about his experiences and how art can change the world.

How do you choose which artworks to buy or commission?

I never think of art in terms of investment because I never plan to sell anything. I do think in terms of value _ is this a piece of art that will remain important in 20 years or in the long term?

Of course, it involves a bit of gut instinct. Every encounter with an artwork is a little like a love affair. The feeling is there all of a sudden, and the question comes _ do you want to continue with it? I also look at the artist's overall work. If it's a good piece by a generally mediocre artist, I'm not interested. When I was still collecting rather than commissioning, I also wanted to see if it fit into the whole of my collection. Some works are very beautiful but wouldn't go with the feel of the collection.

Now ArtAids commissions along the theme of HIV/Aids, but I don't know beforehand how it will turn out.

Are you ever disappointed by the result?

Disappointed is the wrong word, because I never have a fixed idea of what will come out of it. But I'm always surprised.

The artists have often never dealt with the subject of Aids before?

That's right. Awareness is what we're trying to achieve. The artist has to start thinking about it, and in a very profound way he or she has to give it form. And then the artwork is born, and then the public has to start thinking about HIV. And then people will read or hear about it, or see it on television.

How did the idea to create this positive cycle of awareness begin?

It was 2004 for the international Aids conference here in Bangkok _ I decided that there should be art at the conference. Already a Thai art commissioner was working on an exhibition so I helped produce it. That was shown at the Queen's Gallery, and for the first time I could see the impact of art, the power of art. I could see the visitors were looking at the works and started talking about the art and so talking about HIV. That's how ArtAids was born.

‘Pasos—Ema, sola’, HD video, Lorena Zilleruelo, 2011.

Art can generate awareness of HIV and Aids _ does it also help reduce the stigma?

They are linked. You do have very educated people for whom HIV still has a strong stigma.

And because of the stigma, most people who are positive don't talk about it. Very few people come out and say, 'I'm HIV-positive, it's a medical condition like high cholesterol or any other and it should be treated like that.'

You have the unnecessary burden of shame _ it should have nothing to do with that. People should be aware that the stigma is not only a problem for people with HIV, but because of the social exclusion, those who may be infected don't get tested. They are the ones who, without knowing, infect other people. So destigmatising is a form of prevention.

Has the situation improved over the years?

There's still an awful lot to be done. You don't have the great fear you had 20 years ago, because Aids has become practically invisible in many parts of the world. There's now more shame than stigma.

What more can be done?

One of the best ways people have of destigmatising anything is when people come forward and say I have cancer, I am gay, or whatever it is. So people get used to it _ particularly when it's someone they look up to, a sports star or an actor. Then people realise it's not something they need to be afraid of.

And of course, messages in the media should be positive, but that's not so easy to control.

Victoria Cobokana, housekeeper, with son Sifiso and daughter Onica, Johannesburg, June, 1999, by David Goldblatt. All three died of Aids-related causes within a year.

You're very international _ born in Holland, living in Spain, educated in France, speaker of multiple languages. Does that help as a patron of the arts?

For me the world is just one place. I don't have a sense of borders at all. That's why I find it fascinating for artists to exhibit in another country; it's not only a way for the artist to express himself but also for people to learn about other cultures. How often do you see art from South Africa here, or from Lithuania or from Morocco or Chile?

Has your taste in art changed over the years?

It's still very instinctive. It used to be more aesthetically inclined, more poetic. The works now at the exhibition are often unpoetic.

You once said art is a necessity, not a luxury. For someone homeless and starving _ is it really?

It's not frivolous. Let's turn it around. Imagine a world without art. Everything would be gone. You think of how you know about the past, you often have an image of a painting. That's because art reflects our world. And the eye of the artist, of course, so it gives us an opportunity to see life through another eye. That helps us see the world differently. Through art we know who we are. If that's gone, we don't know who we are any more, how to connect _ it would be a great loss.

Art reflects who we are as a world community and as an individual.

From collector to patron, now you also support curators _ is it a natural progression for you?

Yes, it's also organic. One problem working with curator Hilde Teerlink is we found there weren't enough curators around to set up the projects we wanted. So we decided to do something so they could help us initially and then develop their own professional careers.

We need more attention to artists from non-Western countries, so we set up an award and have scouts in different parts of the world.

In conflict areas there is a real urgency for artists because they really have something to say.

'The power of human vulnerability' as you once said.

Yes, out of vulnerability, strength can come. After the last illness, it took me an awful lot of effort to get better, several years _ an awful lot of discipline and strength just to get functional again. That same strength remains, and is now used to do other things, and all these art projects.

'You Are Not Alone' runs until April 18 on the 9th floor, Bangkok Art and Culture Centre. Call 02-214-6630 or visit www.bacc.or.th or www.artaids.com.

‘We Are the People’, Danh Vo, 2011.

ART ATTACK: ‘Resource Room’, Matthew Darbyshire, 2011.

About the author

Writer: Ezra Kyrill Erker
Position: Writer