in Frieze | 05 MAY 20

Han Nefkens: "Video Art was My First Love"

Javier Pes talks to Han Nefkens about collecting video art and the urgent need to support artists in this time

in Frieze | 05 MAY 20

Han Nefkens, a Dutch-born, Barcelona-based philanthropist, has been collecting art for the past two decades. Unusually for a collector, his early acquisitions, which includes works by Pipilotti Rist, Roni Horn, and Shirin Neshat among others, are on long-term loan to museums, many as promised gifts. For the past four years he has focused his energies, and the Han Nefkens Foundation, on supporting international emerging video artists. Working with the Belgian curator, Hilde Teerlinck, and a handpicked network of institutions, Nefkens’s foundation commissions video works. Recent pieces include the Vietnam-based artist Thao Nguyen Phan’s “Becoming Alluvium” (2019), which forms part of her solo show at Brussels’ contemporary art centre WIELS. Lockdown permitting, it is due to travel to London’s Chisenhale gallery this summer. Nefkens, who has lived with HIV for more than 30 years, spoke to Frieze from lockdown in Barcelona about the urgent need to support artists. 

The artists you are working with, such as Thao Nguyen Phan, tend not to be well established names. Why is that important?

I've lived outside the place I was born for the biggest part of my life. So part of that is the reason why I am interested in going to Vietnam, or South Korea, or Ecuador, and discovering artists there. I feel that these artists need my help now. Really wonderful works have come out of that. That gives me a far greater sense of satisfaction than having a work by another trophy artist.

Thao Nguyen Phan, Becoming Alluvium, 2019, Video, produced by the Han Nefkens Foundation

Why did you decide your foundation should focus on commissioning new works and artists' awards?  

It came to a point about three or four years ago that if somebody asked me: "What is your foundation doing?", I would have to sit them down and say, I will explain it to you. I had to focus on one thing in order to be really good at something, and video art was my first love.

Can you tell me a bit about how the foundation finds artists?

We always produce new works through collaborations with art institutions and through awards. In order to find the candidates we have "scouts". We have ten for each award across the various geographical regions. Each expert-scout proposes three artists. Just imagine the delight of being able to see 30 different artists that we may not have heard of before.

The art institutions, which are partners of the award, make a pre-selection of ten finalists, a process in which we are not involved. Then a jury consisting of the directors decides who is going to be the winner. They get funds to produce new work, which will be shown in the institutions. From their side, it's a question of trust in both the foundation and the artist because they do not know what kind of work they are going to receive.

We also serve as a sounding board throughout the creative process. As a writer, I know how solitary the artistic process can be.

Why is it important to collaborate with museums rather than run your own space?

I think that artists are better helped by showing their works in prestigious museums. Our flexible and light way of working, helps us right now. Imagine if we had a big office, a big staff, and big overheads?

You have a very democratic attitude to sharing works. Why is that?

I've really been interested from the beginning in how art can be shared. Everything I bought went straight away to museums as long-term loans or donations. I don't have a feeling of possession about art. I think it is the same when you have a wonderful tree standing in your garden. The tree belongs to the world.

When you stopped buying existing works that must have left a lot of disappointed gallerists.

Yes, there are [laughs]. I can tell you we have several artists that are very promising. They will eventually get a gallery. So, the gallery will be helped by the fact that the foundation supported them at the start of their career.

This pandemic has had dramatic and far reaching consequences for the art world. How best can foundations like your’s help artists and nonprofits to get through this crisis?

It is very difficult to say what will happen because things may go very well, and there may be an economic rebound, or  things may go horribly wrong.  It is so overwhelming that I feel that I want to focus on the small things we can do to begin with. When things become clearer, we might see what we can do. 

Erkan Ozgen, Wonderland (2016, installation view

Which works that you have helped commission now seem especially prophetic in this lockdown?

I noticed how I was turning to works by two of our artists. Erkan Ӧzgen is an artist from Turkish Kurdistan, who made “Wonderland” [2016]. It is a work about a young boy, a refugee from Syria, who is deaf and mute. He expresses himself through his body. Aziz Hazara is from Afghanistan. We are producing wonderful work with him about a terrible situation there. Even though the subject matter is very dramatic and saddening, it gave me a feeling that I am not alone. It was a feeling that we are all part of a bigger whole.

You have had to confront mortality since a young man. How has that shaped your thinking about art and your foundation?

I became very aware of how futile material possessions can be and how important that connection with other people can be. That has been the motor for what I have been doing. Thirty three years ago, hearing that you had HIV meant you did not have much time to live. That makes me feel very aware of what a gift life is. I have been given all these extra days and so many people haven't, including my own brother.

One of the things I have come to realise is the importance of art. Now, with money going to be so scarce, people may feel that art is a luxury. But it is not a luxury because it gives meaning to who we are. It is incredibly important to support it in any way we can.

How do you feel when you see how galleries and museums are starting to come back to life in Asia?

It is going to be different with the social distancing. Perhaps we have to wait in line a little more. That is not such a bad thing. Time is a price we should pay to look at something that is valuable.

Han Nefkens was speaking to Javier Pes