Tuesday December 19, 2023 | by Andrew Page

CONVERSATION: Curator Jabari Owens-Bailey on his exhibition "A Two-Way Mirror" at the Museum of Glass

Used in everything from surveillance windows to the infinity boxes of artist Josiah McElheny, a "two-way mirror" is defined by Merriam Webster as "a piece of glass that is a mirror on one side but that can be seen through like a window from the other side." For curator Jabari Owens-Bailey, who titled the exhibition he organized at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma "A Two-Way Mirror," the term is a reference to W.E.B. Du Bois's concept of "Double Consciousness," which refers to the Black experience in America. Specifically, it refers to the divided consciousness between how one sees oneself, and the simultaneous awareness of how one is being perceived by the world, something that develops from living in a racially divided American society. As Du Bois put it in his groundbreaking 1903 essay collection The Souls of Black Folk, it's "measuring oneself by the means of a nation that looked back in contempt."

As we learn in his extensive interview with the Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet, Owens-Bailey discovered the potent metaphoric and material qualities of glass relatively recently, and he was immediately transfixed by its potential to explore some of his own ideas about art and identity. Growing up in Washington, D.C., Owens-Bailey spent much of his childhood in the city's museums, later studying fine art in college, and then pursing curatorial opportunities. Currently holding the title of Curatorial Education Program Manager at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, he has put together an exhibition of 23 artists, from the internationally known (Joyce Scott, Fred Wilson, Kara Walker) to the emerging (Leo Tecosky, Jason McDonald, Chris Day), hailing from the U.S., Britain, and Puerto Rico. With multiple works drawn from the Museum of Glass's own collections (built in large part from the many artists who have gifted work from their residencies at the museum's hotshop), the work is quite varied in sensibility and scale. Running through October 27, 2024, "A Two Way Mirror: Double Consciousness in Contemporary Glass by Black Artists" is an ambitious curatorial achievement that showcases the power of glass as means to investigate ways of seeing society, history, and ultimately, oneself.

Glass Quarterly Hot Sheet: You're originally from Washington D.C., you earned your MFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York, and have curated a number of exhibitions in NYC, and you introduce yourself as a maker as well as a curator. Why do you refer to yourself as a "maker" rather than an artist? 
Jabari Owens-Bailey: I'm originally from Washington, DC. I grew up in the 1980s and '90s, and was very much influenced by the city I lived in. At the time Washington, DC was predominantly Black and the inhabitants ran the gamut from poor to extremely wealthy. Class, geographic, and racial divides were all one and the same. A small section of the city was predominantly white and wealthy. The rest of the city was mostly Black. It wasn’t until going to boarding school in 8th grade that I was introduced to a more multicultural experience. That was my first experience being a minority.  Now DC is much different. It's less segregated and more of a mid-career transitional city than it used to be.  

Curator Jabari Owens-Bailey

Going to museums on the Smithsonian mall complex was not only part of the built-in school curriculum, but also a frequent family weekend outing due to the fact that the programming was free but also “educational”. A love of exhibitions was fostered due to my parents' desire to keep me and my older sister occupied with enrichment activities and their tendency towards thrift. By the time I went to high school I viewed museums as a safe haven and a place to go and dream when I skipped school. I was specifically in love with the National Gallery of Art and the Hirshhorn Museum. Both of these spaces had outdoor and indoor sculptures.  

I went to undergrad at Corcoran School of the Arts and Design in DC after a brief stint at a Historically Black College in North Carolina. I gained insight into contemporary art there and eventually moved to New York. After I started at the New York Academy of Art, I found myself looking for more conceptual rigor and eventually ended up at the School of Visual Arts. Grad school critiques were important in the ways that they challenged me. At the end of graduate school I found myself not knowing what to make anymore and very influenced by the art scene that surrounded me. At the time within 4 blocks of my graduate department was Chelsea, which I spent time in week after week at openings imbibing cheap white wine and seeing shows with blue chip artists.    

After graduate school I worked in non profit art spaces, arts education non profits, and as a freelance preparator, all the while pursuing exhibitions of my own work. I ended up learning about curatorial practice through a curatorial fellowship at the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art (MoCADA) in Brooklyn.

Glass: Can you tell me a bit about your journey to not only joining the staff of the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, but getting the opportunity to curate "A Two-Way Mirror"?
Owens-Bailey: After arriving in Tacoma to help my older sister recover from surgery, I ended up going to of the local museums in my spare time. One of those museums was Museum of Glass. I didn't have any knowledge of glassmaking prior to visiting. The fact that this museum included a hot shop made it seem to be more of a living art space than other museum I had visited before. There were actual makers creating work in front of the museum goers every day the museum was open. This fascinated me.  

I applied but wasn't hired for the open Curator of Education position, but was hired in a role that catered to some of my skills obtained through prior work experience. I became part of the Education Department at the museum which was right next to the curatorial department. I volunteered to help install some shows while the museum was short staffed during the height of the pandemic and appeared as a scholar in educational content.  

After a year of working at Museum of Glass, I struck up a conversation with our collections and exhibitions manager Rebecca Engelhardt about Black glass artists. I had an idea for an exhibition that I shared with her when it was in its most infantile state. She encouraged me to polish it and submit it as a proposal to the staff for review. As someone who grew up looking at art I always searched for art and artists that reflected my experiences, or experiences of those who look like me. Glass is such a rich material that has its own inherent history. Glass is also rich in metaphorical potential. This made me want to explore identity through the lens of glass. The proposal was received well and also fit within the museum’s commitment to try to engage with Diversity Equity Accessibility and Inclusion in the exhibitions and programming. 

Leo Tecosky, Untitled, 2022. H 16 1/2, W 12, D 3 3/8 in. collection: museum of glass. photo: duncan price


Glass: You mentioned how "alive" the working hotshop in the museum in Tacoma made the artwork feel; it sounds like you were taken with this. How did you go about immersing yourself in the medium itself (getting up to speed in the nature of the material, and also the sometimes esoteric nomenclature of makers)? 
Owens-Bailey: I was able to immerse myself in the medium a few different ways. Fortunately some of my public programs involved actually talking to glass artists and asking them questions. Also, Museum of Glass has a pretty robust visiting artist program that has had many prominent glass artists come to the museum. I have been able to look at their meet the artist videos. Also our hot shop emcee Walter Lieberman has been a great resource for the history of studio glass. Through some of the people I have met I have started following several contemporary glass artists on social media.  I am surrounded by people and a library of books on glass here at the museum. Even with all of that I am still learning about new artists all the time and more history. 

Glass: Were you looking to survey the work done by Black artists in the medium for glass? 
Owens-Bailey: I don’t know if surveying Black artists in the medium of glass was my intention. I was not seeking to make the premier show of Black artists in glass that would include all of the major players. My intention was to curate a show that was about Black glass artists that used glass to explore identity. That task required talking to institutions, collectors, colleagues, looking at catalogs, contacting artists, their galleries, and gaining referrals from people in the field. Finding some of the historical items included some of this approach and also contacting auction houses and learning from institutions I borrowed from.    

Glass: Were those using the material to explore issues of identity a subset of all Black makers, or would you say that this is a common consideration of every Black artist who is using glass?  
Owens-Bailey: The communities of glass artists of color is pretty small so some names and people I kept running into. Some artists who have been working in the medium for a while had pieces that simply did not fit. I was looking for work that was not simply well done goblets or vases. I wanted to find some work that was saying this is me, my religion, my history, my subculture, my mythology, my past, my future. There were more artists than I am showing whose work says those things. I wanted to have a balance between emerging, mid career, and artists who are already very famous. I also wanted the show to be cohesive.  

I'm not sure if I would consider people using the medium to explore personal identity through glass a subset of makers. Many of the artists who are in this show would not consider themselves glass artists. Many are artists who used the material in particular projects because it was useful in what they were trying to say. Black makers, particularly those who are working in glass are a small group of people already. Many of them I would venture to say are beginning their artistic journey and may not have gotten to a place where they know what they want to say yet. I wanted "A Two-Way Mirror" to say that making work in glass in a vein that is more than pure formalist aesthetics is a viable option. The seductive nature of the material makes it easy to use for its beauty and its history. I just think glass has more stories to tell than cups, bowls and vases. It is a fluid material that is infinitely viscous. It is also infinitely fluid in its properties and what it can embody.

Attributed to Pellatt & Green (British, 1803-1831). Cologne Bottle with Anti-Slavery Sulphide, circa 1820-1830. Blown and cut glass with cameo incrustation. H 3 3/8, W 2 1/2 in. collection: chrysler museum of art

Glass: I'm curious about your thoughts on the issue of access and the lack of diverse voices in glass, which came to the fore for the glass community in 2020, as well as this concept of the material's fluidity -- which is so contemporary as questions of identity and intersectionality have become foregrounded in many artistic practices.
Owens-Bailey: Accessibility to glass is shifting in many ways. There are several glass spaces and community incubators that give artists the opportunity to create glass work. Spaces such as Museum of Glass, Pilchuck, UrbanGlass, Penland, Washington Glass School, etc. are spaces that offer courses, residencies, and other types of offerings that give artists opportunities to create. 

Many institutions in the last 10 years have started to have initiatives around diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion. Prior to diversity being a buzz word perhaps the absence of these offerings made the impediments to working in glass that much more difficult to surmount. One can only guess the reasons why more glass works by artists of color were not shown more in the past. The history of the Studio Glass Movement does not seem to include Black artists. Were there not as many Black people interested in glass? Were there other media that spoke more to the types of art Black artists desired to make? I am less concerned with this than exploring the work and the glass that is being made and what the possibilities for the future are. When there are very few people of color in positions of power in glass institutions and craft spaces it's not hard to guess why there hadn't been as much interest in the cultural production by and about Black bodies in this medium.    

Therman Statom and Fred Wilson, both of whom are in the exhibition, have been working in glass for several years. Both had the resources and interest in glass as a means of expressing their ideas. One artist is more conceptual and works with artisans to fabricate his work, one is more of a crafts person that is interested in the formal elements of glass. Neither exist in a vacuum. I am always convinced that for every two artists that you see there are several that are working at the same time that never gain visibility and because of a lack of opportunity, exposure, and resources eventually stop.  

Glass: Can you talk a bit about your experiences assembling the exhibition and the multiple conversations you had with Black makers on the topic of access to glass (if that came up with any regularity).
Owens-Bailey: Prior to working at Museum of Glass in Tacoma, I had very little knowledge of glass. Most of my knowledge of art came from studying in undergraduate and graduate study coupled with professional experience in non-profit contemporary spaces. I learned art history and art theory as a byproduct of my original desire to be a maker. Art theory, and conceptual ideas were important pieces to my education. As an artist of color, I had a natural personal interest in how people of color were not only rendered historically but also the artists that were able to overcome marginalization to become historical figures in art.  

Working at Museum of Glass as an Education Program Manager has given me a supplementary art education. Learning the history of glass has been an endeavor I have treasured. The Museum of Glass is not only an exhibition space but a place where artists are able to come and fabricate work in our Hot Shop. The information I have gained has ranged from the different working methods to the origins of the American Studio Glass Movement. All of these experiences made me want to find work and artists that reflect me and my identity.  

Assembling this exhibition was a labor of love and curiosity. It started as a search for Black artists that were making glass work that was exploring more than the conventional glass that I was seeing. I love a vase, a goblet and a mastery of craft as much as the next person but that wasn’t what I was looking for in my search. I was asking questions from people around me when I started. Some of these people were our emcee at Museum of Glass, the artist Walter Lieberman, our resident glass historian and our Exhibition Manager, Rebecca Engelhardt. Each of them was just as interested in the questions I was asking as I was.  

As someone who was new to the field I felt like it was important to start from scratch and ask these questions:  

  • Are there Black glass artists?
  • Are there contemporary Black artists that have ventured into glass?
  • How have Black people been rendered in glass in the past?
  • How do Black glass artists see themselves?
  • What attributes of glass can be exploited to explore identity?
  • Is there implicit classism and racism in glass?

Not all of the questions I asked were answered in this exhibition, but I felt that the research I was doing would add to the discourse. My methods of answering the questions ranged from talking to institutions, searching through the catalogues of glass institutions, having conversations with artists and gallerists, searching auction houses, reading articles about artists, reading articles created by artists (The Whiteness of Glass, Related Tactics), and having a few Zoom conversations.
Therman Statom, Ladder, 2012. Blown glass and mixed media. H 76, W 15, D 6 3/4 in. collection: museum of glass. gift: robert minkoff foundation
Glass: Can you speak a bit more about "fluidity" as a metaphor and practical aspect of glass -- and how this particularly is important for the glass artists you featured in the exhibition. How have you seen individual artists are approaching this in different ways? And I guess implicit in this question is kind of a counterpoint to the first about access -- do you think there is adequate appreciation for the diversity of voices of Black artists - that they vary widely in their approach to the material and the issues in their work -- as well as in their personal histories and how they arrived to the material.
Owens-Bailey: After working for a while on researching and finding artists that I felt made work with glass about their personal identities, I decided to frame the exhibition around Double Consciousness because that is a concept that I had been interested in for much of my adult life. It’s an old term originally coined by the scholar and activist, W.E.B. Dubois in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk. I felt this concept could be explored through glass because of the multifaceted properties of the material.  “Seeing oneself through the eyes of another” is not only a type of reflection but a type of obfuscation. Glass can be translucent, reflective, opaque, beautiful, abject, have various surface treatments, be a means of distortion and obscurity, and can also be fragile. In this way it is a perfect metaphorical structure to explore the complexity of identity.

Each of the artists in the exhibition has approached these ideas of identity in different ways. Part of the way I divided the exhibition was through the subcategories of perception, mind, body, and spirit. The perception section included pieces that were made by artists about Black Bodies. The spirit section included work like Shikieth’s Balloon series, where the material of the piece included aspects of his being like his breath, promise, and ecstasy in addition to the glass. The body section includes work where the glass itself is a part, proxy for, or means or rendering the Black Body.  In this section Crystal Z Campbell has a HeLa Cell laser etched in glass in her Portrait of a Woman series. Chris Day created glass objects to capture the violence of a lynching through the treatment of the glass in Strange Fruit. Cheryl Derricotte screen prints images of Black child laborers from glass factories in glass powder in her Glass Boys: All Black series. The Mind section has a fabricated black mirror by Fred Wilson for his I Saw Othello’s Visage in His Mind. Kara Walker renders her typical antebellum south scenes of violence in her Cannisters piece. All of these artists approach making and the use of glass in a unique fashion.    

Just like Black identity is not monolithic, glass making also has various approaches. Therman Statom cuts, laminates, and paints beautiful assemblages. Artists such as Fred Wilson and Hank Willis Thomas have work fabricated in a specific format to bring across their concepts. Layo Bright and Cheryl Derricotte produce their glass work by manipulating the material in a kiln. Alejandro Guzman broke pieces of glass to be adhered to an object to make his sculpture. Each of these techniques is as unique as a fingerprint. The similarities can be found in the way that they are engaged in discourse about the history, culture, trauma, genius, inequity, religion etc. of people of color. 

Glass: Are there any additional topics you'd like to touch on? 
Owens-Bailey: "A Two-Way Mirror" is not only an exhibition to me -- it's a portal. It’s an opening for more to engage in this discourse. I want the show to be an exhibition that normalizes this discussion in a medium that had been dominated by white males. The work in this show is not just about the formal aspects of this material. The potential of glass as a conceptual device is exploited. Glass does not have to be monogamous to “pretty” or “utility”. It can be promiscuous in its intentions and usage. Glass is a building material. Why can’t it be a building block of equity?

Glass: The UrbanGlass Quarterly, a glossy art magazine published four times a year by UrbanGlass has provided a critical context to the most important artwork being done in the medium of glass for more than 40 years.