Collectors Lisa Young and Steven Abraham Are Building Community with Asian Diasporic Artists
Portrait, from left to right, of Steven Abraham and Lisa Young with, from left to right, Conrad Egyir, Agape. Allegory of Love, 2019; and Nadia Waheed, Moksha, 2019. Courtesy of the artists and Young-Abraham Collection.
“It was fierce!” exclaimed Steven Abraham, recalling the first time he saw Aïda Muluneh’s Fragments (2016) in the exhibition “Being: New Photography 2018” at the Museum of Modern Art. “Before then,” added Lisa Young, “it never really occurred to us that you can actually own something that was being shown in a museum.”
Young and Abraham, who are married and in their early thirties, approach art collecting as outsiders—the former works in tech and the latter as a design consultant—but have amassed an impressive collection of works by emerging artists of color. Their initial unfamiliarity with the inner workings of the art world have proven to be a strength. As Young and Abraham continue to question the norms that have left artists vulnerable to marketplace whims, they imagine a more equitable art world that prioritizes community building.
Aïda Muluneh, Fragments, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Young-Abraham Collection.
It feels fitting, then, that Fragments, with the photographed woman’s commanding presence, was the first artwork to enter the Young-Abraham Collection in 2018. Out of curiosity, they looked Muluneh up on Artsy and inquired about her work with David Krut Projects. “It was at a price point that was shockingly something that we could afford,” Young recalled. The experience demystified art collecting for the Brooklyn-based couple, who realized that they didn’t need millions to own the works that they loved. To acquire Fragments, the then-engaged couple dipped into their wedding fund. “We decided we don’t need to invite everyone,” Young laughed.
With the recognition that they had the financial means to enter into a space that excludes many, Young and Abraham strove for their acquisitions to be intentional and impactful. “A lot of our recent acquisitions talk about the Asian diaspora within the lens of what it’s like to be Asian in a Western context,” said Young. “There’s this notion of what is lost when you’re in that space versus when you’ve stayed in Asia and that is your identity full stop.” While Young was born and raised in New York to Japanese and Korean immigrants, Abraham grew up in Indonesia before relocating to the United States in his teens. Their art collection reflects their range of experiences, as they gravitate towards work that reflects the artist’s strong sense of cultural identity and navigates assimilation and erasure.
Arghavan Khosravi, installation view of A Family Portrait (Childhood Memories), 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Young-Abraham Collection.
Although the couple’s knowledge of the arts was initially limited to the traditional canon, they’ve built a diverse collection featuring figures once glaringly absent in visual culture. Many of the works in their collection feature self-possessed people of color that return the viewer’s gaze. Alongside Muluneh’s photograph are works by Monica Kim Garza, Conrad Egyir, Arghavan Khosravi, Coady Brown, and Dennis Osadebe, among others.
The couple credits the generosity of the Black art collectives HAUSEN and ARTNOIR for their current knowledge of the contemporary art world. “I learned so much about how to uplift and also critique, to be connected and highlight each other,” Abraham said of the two organizations. Through HAUSEN, Young and Abraham met interdisciplinary artist Anthony Olubunmi Akinbola, whose stretched durags, often covering wooden panels, function simultaneously as painting, sculpture, and collage. Through his choice of materials, Akinbola grapples with respectability politics and the commodification of Black culture.
Installation view, from left to right and top to bottom, of Anthony Akinbola, Camouflage #028 (Carousel) and Camouflage #003 (11:59), both 2018; and Chi Ming, Sleeping Beauty, 2014. Courtesy of the artists and Young-Abraham Collection.
Young and Abraham acquired two of his artworks, drawn to the exposed “Made in China” tags, as seen in CAMOUFLAGE #003 (11:59) (2018). The detail speaks to the transnational chains of production and distribution under global capitalism, asking viewers to consider the relationship between the laborers producing durags and those who wear them. “Every single time we go to HAUSEN [in Brooklyn], we end up talking for hours because everyone is so passionate about what they do and have such a strong concept of their work. I admire that so deeply about them,” said Abraham. “To have [Akinbola’s] work in our home is such an amazing reminder of that. Both the craft and story we really cherish.”
In the age of Instagram and rapidly consumable content, Young and Abraham find conversations with artists to be the most exciting aspect of art collecting. “For us, it became really important to not only think of collecting as owning an object but championing the narratives and the person behind it,” Young said. With the awareness that it takes time to become familiar with an artist’s practice, they focus on first building relationships with artists through studio visits.
Yowshien Kuo, Slipped in Hope, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Young-Abraham Collection.
“Community is so important for diasporic people and we’re so inspired by HAUSEN’s and ARTNOIR’s communities,” said Abraham. “I think that’s something that’s slightly missing from the Asian diasporic community of artists.” During studio visits, Young and Abraham noticed common themes and difficulties that artists of Asian descent encountered, such as how to render their skin color.
The painted portraits in the Young-Abraham Collection show the wide breadth of approaches, including figures that materialize from sandy yellow, rich brown, and even glowing pink hues. At the center of Yowshien Kuo’s Slipped in Hope (2020), for example, is a light-skinned Asian woman who’s closer in complexion to the yellow woman in Dominique Fung’s Matrilineality (2019) than the brown Asian men that surround her. “Representations of Asian bodies have always been such a question mark,” Young explained. “I think we tend to gravitate more towards figurative art for that reason.” While Nadia Waheed depicts her South Asian figure in an otherworldly magenta in Moksha (2019), the glassy-eyed girl in Sasha Gordon’s Flirting with No One (2020) has a blue forehead that fades to orange around her cheeks and yellow by her chin. The latter piece is reminiscent of what fellow biracial artist Devan Shimoyama has called “temperature zones in the body” within his own oeuvre.
Young and Abraham hope to encourage greater dialogue and collaboration among artists of the Asian diaspora, introducing artists to the works of others who are exploring related themes. “It’s about finding community,” said Young. “We see it somewhat with Asian artists, but there’s definitely room for that community to grow and we really strive to help push that along.”
Their first in-person studio visit since the outbreak of COVID-19 was with abstract artist Patrick Alston, whose work they encountered through the benefit auction “ARTNOIR From: Friends To: Friends” hosted by Artsy this past summer. “I think the pandemic has really pressure-tested the role of the art collector and what we can do beyond the transaction of owning a painting or an object,” Young said.
Installation view, from left to right and top to bottom, of Dennis Osadebe, Quick Gateway, 2018; Dominique Fung, Matrilineality, 2019; and Jonathan Chapline, Potted Plant II, 2018. Courtesy of the artists and Young-Abraham Collection.
Young and Abraham are in the early stages of piloting a small program to provide free artist studios for those who are no longer able to afford a work space or lost their university-provided space in the wake of COVID-19. “Is this weird that we’re not artists and we’re renting studio space?” asked Young. “I feel like our experience in the art world is filled with those, ‘Is that weird? Is it weird to do this?’” Abraham added.
Approaching the arts scene with fresh eyes has allowed them to consider more inventive ways to support artists beyond acquisitions. Another example is that they encourage the inclusion of resale clauses—from right of first refusal to royalty or profit share clauses—when adding an artwork to their collection. During a time when more and more recently established artists of color are seeing their artworks flipped at auction, such advocacy for artist equity becomes even more urgent. “It’s weird that we’re commodifying everything and seeing artworks as assets, when it comes from such a personal place or it’s inherently connected to the artist’s identity,” Abraham explained. “I think you should be precious with your stories, and this is one way to do it.”
Maia Cruz Palileo, Afterward, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Young-Abraham Collection.
Whereas private collections have historically lacked transparency, Young and Abraham are eager to highlight their artworks. They built a dedicated website to offer more information on the artists they admire. “It was such a bizarre concept to me that people acquired things and hid them away in a dark corner where no one else saw it,” Young said. “These are narratives and people who need to be heard, and so how loud is that voice if it’s just in our apartment?”
With this in mind, the couple also loans out works from their collection to exhibitions around the world. Fung’s Matrilineality is currently on view in “Friends and Friends of Friends: Artistic Communities in the Age of Social Media” at Schlossmuseum in Austria, and Maia Cruz Palileo’s Afterward (2019) is featured in “RELATIONS: Diaspora and Painting” at the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art in Montreal.
“I would love it if our walls were empty because the artworks were all being shown in physical spaces elsewhere,” Young said, turning to Abraham. “I know you would be extremely sad by that.”