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Always Becoming, Never Being: An Interview with Sharayna Ashanti Christmas

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Before colonization, African empires like The Kongo and Mali held some of the most preeminent societies of their time, home to inventors, traders, and artists alike. Sharayna Christmas embodies attributes of all three. A longtime arts practitioner, Christmas is an immovable force in the Baltimore arts landscape, a textbook multihyphenate mother, dancer, producer, and the founder of the nonprofit arts organization Muse 360 Arts. After opening Rayn Fall Dance Studio in 2003, Christmas started the umbrella nonprofit Muse 360 in 2004 to also incorporate an entrepreneurship program and an arts education and travel program for young people. As if that weren’t enough, through her curatorial platform, Necessary Tomorrows, established in 2017, Christmas has produced exhibitions and facilitated the sale of work by Black artists such as Ernest Shaw, Monica Ikegwu, Jerrell Gibbs, Megan Lewis, and numerous others.

A pandemic is a little bit like the conflicts that eventually ravage all empires. Some empires are leveled to ash while others arise in reconfigured forms. Amid the chaos of the social, civil, and political wars of 2020, Necessary Tomorrows and its founder have come out with a recent rebrand (done in partnership with designer Glenford Nuñez) and the debut of an online exhibition, Immaterial Souls, featuring Baltimore-based artists Kirby Griffin, Gyasi Mitchell, Nuñez, and Christmas herself. 

“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will glorify the hunter,” said the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, referencing a proverb, in a 1994 interview. Well-resourced, large arts institutions and funders are the hunters in the arts ecosystems here in Baltimore and around the world. Even when well-meaning, they prey and feed on the ideas of individual artists and small arts organizations as common practice. Sharayna Christmas is the lioness gone unhunted. In what can sometimes be hostile terrain and with little foundational support, Christmas has built independent avenues for artists to succeed. When I think about cultural forces like her I’m reminded of how important it is to be in conversation, spirit, and truth with other Black women who are affirmed in the power of artistic expression through numerous modalities. I had a chance to hear her soul roar through a series of questions about spirit, art, Necessary Tomorrows, and more.

 

Alanah Nichole Davis: You are someone I consider a multi-hyphenate, someone who expresses themselves creatively through a multitude of ways. For folks who may not know, what are those mediums and how did you come to them?

Sharayna Ashanti Christmas: I’m a cultural worker, but first and foremost I’m a dancer and most people know me as a dancer. I grew up in Harlem going to The Dance Theater of Harlem and dance is still a large catalyst for all of the stuff that I do. I have a ballet school under my nonprofit umbrella Muse 360 Arts called Rayn Fall Dance Studio and have run both since 2004. I’m celebrating 16 years of running both the dance school and the overarching nonprofit and am always expanding as an artist. I feel like I’m always becoming, never being. 

Tell me about Necessary Tomorrows and how it was born. 

In my aforementioned and always evolved “becoming, I founded Necessary Tomorrows in 2017. Everything I do usually starts with me saying, “Am I really doing this?” As if I’m not wearing enough hats. In 2017 I was consulting and on the operations team that was opening Ida B’s Table, a restaurant local to Baltimore owned in large part by The Real News Network. I was there from before the ribbon-cutting, all the way until 2019. Early on there were certain aspects of my role that I hated, as I’m not a restauranteur. I did assert that to my team and pitched that I wanted to get more into the design of the restaurant and the artwork, and they immediately agreed. That’s when I began to spearhead an effort to commission artists like Webster Phillips and his late grandfather I. Henry Phillips Sr., Rodney Herring, and Ernest Shaw to populate the restaurant space [with their work]. Then I said to the team, “Well, we have this parlor space in the back, let’s do some shows?” And we did some shows. That’s how Necessary Tomorrows was born.

Why birth Necessary Tomorrows when you did?

I was at a point in my career where I wanted to use my expansive skill set in different ways, to be honest. I wanted to maximize the opportunity to have [exhibition] space. I believed in the future of NT before I even created it. I wanted to create more of a livelihood for artists. It’s fine for artists to just make work and not sell it, and if that’s what folks are fit’na do, I get the connection and intimacy of that. But for me, being at a new restaurant like Ida B’s, I had an opportunity to not only expose the work of artists I worked with but to sell it. I also knew that I could protect them. With the knowledge I have from my business degree at Morgan State University I created a contract and started to do a lot of business for artists. So even though this wasn’t a formal gallery, it became an arts intermediary. 

Sounds like a lot of early success with Necessary Tomorrows and a lot more “becoming” for you personally. How has Necessary Tomorrows grown to support artists in Baltimore and beyond?

I have worked with a lot of artists through NT that have been very successful. I saw myself morphing into this—I don’t want to say “curator,” but definitely a person that was creating a space for artists to thrive. Every first Tuesday of the month we would have an opening and it was very, very packed. We would have programming around that. We would sometimes sell 100 percent of the artwork on display, ALL the artwork gone! I created opportunities for people to hear from artists through a series of 13 shows with 27 artists from 2017 to 2018 in Ida B’s, which was crazy. Then I realized that that’s too fucking much… I was like, “Girl (to myself), you cannot do a show every four to six weeks.” I had to take the work down, hang the work, and create a catalogue, it was a lot. But I was in a space of curiosity and I was in the space of journeying. I found out then that I wanted to use my skill sets to help out help Black artists by giving them a platform and making sure that they know that they’re thought of and that they’re seen. 

I also created an opportunity for Black businesses to acquire artwork. Those businesses would buy work to furnish their law or doctors’ offices and I used to facilitate those sales and commissions. I was busy. It was great. But then it wasn’t, and it wasn’t great. That’s the reality of it, it’s not something I do to make money but sometimes I just do things to let Black folks, Black artists know that they can bring themselves to swell with autonomy and that they can make a living doing it. I love to give back to the community like that. 

How many pieces have you sold in 2019 and 2020? 

$42,000 in those two years, eleven pieces from April to August of 2020. Ten percent of those sales usually go back to the Necessary Tomorrows Black Creatives Fund. I don’t take a commission.

Should all Black people be collectors?

YES.

What are your thought patterns as a cultural worker and what do you think about day to day? Tell us a little bit more about what’s under the umbrella of Muse 360 Arts. 

I’m always thinking about ways that I can use the modality of ingenuity. It’s really about using that ingenuity that we have as black folks to help our community rise up and help our community be seen. It’s not really always about overcoming because those things happen anyway, but it’s more so about how can I do that? With Muse 360 I was able to do that not only with my dance school, but also by creating a study abroad leadership program called New Generation Scholars where we work with young people. We also have Spark of Genius, which is a creative entrepreneurship project for youth. 

You’ve done so much to change the arts and culture game for and with others. Where are you situated as an individual artist?

People don’t know all the work that I do cause I don’t like to put myself out there in that way, but I’m starting to now. As an individual artist, I find myself now in the multimedia space. I was actually going to have an exhibition in May of 2020 that got canceled (we know why). That really challenged me to think about all the modalities that I’ve been exposed to and have played with over the last almost 20 years. I now find myself in the space of textiles, sensuality, repurposing movements that are not just dance, but sound pieces and sound movement. Even styling is something I’m getting into because people say I’m stylish and I know I am stylish. I’m not going to shy away from that! [laughs] I am and I’m owning it. I’m just finding ways for all of those facets to play into my work. It will all just completely change the game for me. 

 

In Immaterial Souls, there are four artists whose work is on display virtually. I want you to tell me about your relationship to each of them, even yourself. 

Glenford Nuñez: I heard of Glen as a photographer back in the day from a homegirl of mine, maybe in the early ‘00s. I never really connected with him then but when we did it was over his paintings—I’ve even helped to sell some of his work. So when I had the idea for Strwbrrys n Gnpwdr, my forthcoming solo show/series (a project originally set to release in May of 2020 now debuting in January 2021), I knew to reach out to Glen because we have a relationship built on trust. Glen is the type of artist who goes on a hiatus for years, so I’m excited to be working with him on all these amazing collaborations, including the rebrand of Necessary Tomorrows. 

Gyasi Mitchell: Gyasi is definitely a wonderful former student of mine and an amazing budding filmmaker who is currently on a full scholarship at NYU right now. His father is Denzel Mitchell who is one of the owners of Blacksauce Kitchen. Our families are connected. He’s definitely someone to watch and is way ahead of his time. He’s SO good!

Kirby Griffin: I love Kirby with his fine self, and we are close-close friends. Kirby is the first photographer to push me into a vulnerable space. Kirby is a quiet cinematographer who just really knows how to shoot Black folks, the shadows of our skin. I was nervous at first, but with Kirby it’s not even like that. You don’t even wear make-up. He’s just in tandem with my spirit and I call him the dancing cinematographer. We have become kindred spirits and I’m looking forward to everyone seeing our collaborative efforts on Strwbrrys n Gnpwdr in January 2021 and other projects too. People just need to be ready if they ever work with Kirby. He’s always moving with you and you have to be open and ready for his Taurus energy.

Sharayna Ashanti: The relationship with myself in regards to my artistry is something that I’ve kept kind of hidden since I was a kid, to be honest. I did ballet professionally, and when you’re with a company they give you all of the choreo—you’re not creating. But because I didn’t have many things as a kid I was always making things in my bedroom, especially textiles. I would use materials from the thrift store or the attic. I’ve also always been a writer but sometimes I feel like my work is just too intimate to share—and I’m a Scorpio so you know we like to keep things secret. But as I’ve evolved, my relationship to myself is about being fearless and led by spirit. It’s all been such an intimate and personal journey. Now I’m in a space of “Fuck it, I’m just going to put it out there!” I’m embracing that inner spirit and am past all that. 

“Immaterial” has several definitions. Define it as it’s applied to the Necessary Tomorrows exhibition.

The non-embodiment of space. It’s not about not loving material things. My colleague Glen joked as I ideated about the name of the show saying, “Well, you’re selling the artwork.” But it’s not that, it just has everything to do with the way we morph into these beings that are led predominantly by spirit. For instance, I asked Glen what his process was when he’s painting and how the ideas came to him, I think it comes from spirit. I’m always asking the question, “What’s more important than the physical?” What other layers can we go into? Immaterial Souls have everything to do with the spiritual. The soul is what is within us. Every being in the show has a soul.

Are the works in this virtual exhibition for sale?

Yes! Every piece is for sale and interested collectors should visit necessarytomorrows.com/exhibitions and hover over each piece for pricing.

I’ve seen all of the work in the show and have sat with some. It’s all so powerful! I notice a lot of the element water throughout the exhibition, and I know we both share a Scorpio placement astrologically. Happy Scorpio season! I want to know which of the seven elements you relate to the most between nature, water, fire, earth, light, darkness, and spirit?

I see spirit as something that moves through all of the elements. Spirit is absolutely something that I use to guide my every move. The will of the spirit is something that is very important to me. But the two specific elements would be fire and water because I’m definitely a person that completely destroys things, will completely deconstruct something. And it’ll be very uncomfortable for everybody, including myself at times, but I can see the vision. And water because it washes things clean, washes away that which doesn’t serve me. It truly does. So fire, or as I call it the red flower, is just so good at reshaping things. Water definitely reshapes too. They may be opposites of each other but both are very important and very needed in the reshaping of things.

 

There is not an institution that has invested or will invest more in you, your artistry, and your being, than you! 
Sharayna Christmas

Why rebrand or reshape Necessary Tomorrows now?

I do a thousand things, so the timing of it was something I really just followed spirit on. I wanted the image and branding of Necessary Tomorrows to be something I could really fall in love with. The rebranding of Necessary Tomorrows was an opportunity for me to become clear about what direction I want to go into. It was an opportunity for me to reimagine. So it was less about a timing thing. It was more so about it’s time to reimagine the opportunities that Necessary Tomorrows can bring. I worked alongside photographer and senior graphic designer Glenford Nuñez to envision, reimagine, and define the evolution of Necessary Tomorrows. I’m always evolving and don’t like to be pigeon-holed. I was nervous but I’m really, really happy. It was necessary, no pun intended. 

I fuck with that and I really fuck with how much you mention other artists and how present the spirit of collaboration is in your work. You remind me of the goddess, Venus, who I’m pretty sure is Black. Venus encompasses love, beauty, desire, sex, fertility, prosperity, and victory. I wanted to know if you agree with my sentiment or if there’s a goddess or deity that you most relate to?

I actually went to go see the statue of Venus in Italy, it had so many chains around the door but you could see inside. When I went to Cuba and I went to Brazil I realized the goddess I connect with the most is an African goddess named Oya. Oya is the goddess of fire, magic, and fertility—you should read into it because she actually is really connected to Scorpios. She definitely destroys, and you can definitely feel her when you have a real hard storm. She’s known to be very ferocious and protective—like I am with the artists I work with. 

In the theme of Immaterial Souls, who are some of those special souls you’ve worked with in the past? 

With some of the other programs that I was able to produce, I’ve connected with people like Baltimore-based musician Brandon Woody and MICA grad Maria Fragoso from Mexico City. Brandon and I actually did a live performance around her artwork in 2019 at Eubie Blake. But the only reason I was able to connect with them in that way was because I have a beautiful relationship to Brandon, who is very talented, and I critiqued Maria’s work at MICA. But more importantly I always ask the question, how to create an experience with two people who have real special souls about them, you know? 

You mentioned Italy just a while ago and a study abroad program for youth—do you travel often? How does it impact your work?

I’ve been to 36 countries. More recently, this summer I went to St. Croix with my students. I feel so affirmed when I’m abroad, especially in the Caribbean. My father’s side of the family is from Trinidad, but his mother was kinda disconnected from it. The Caribbean for me is a really great way to see the diaspora fully come to life because these people still have a history connected to the continent of Africa. It’s just grounding. 

Outside of travel, how do we continue to decolonize our experience as black creatives in the US?

You have to understand your own worth in all of this. You have to understand that there is not an institution that has invested or will invest more in you, your artistry, and your being, than you! 

 

Dr. Marimba Ani, who you cited as an inspiration in this profile about you for BmoreArt last year, says, “Our cultural roots are the most ancient in the world.” How does Necessary Tomorrows encourage Black artists to get in touch with those cultural roots? 

The philosophy of Dr. Marimba Ani (love her to death)—anytime anybody mentions her I just get hot and get excited. She just gets it. She speaks about this spirit that we carry called Nommo. People know Nommo from the Dogon people of Mali. They are the hardest-to-reach people, the hardest to get to and actually study. But they’re very spirited folks, very advanced in science and all these things. But as Dr. Marimba Ani talks about when she talks about our ancient roots, is the ethos that lives within us as Africans living in America or Black folks in America. When she talks about Nommo, it’s the spirit that makes this all possible because of this spirit, this ethos that is from Africa that lives within us, without me having to be born in Africa, even with the transatlantic slave trade, if that is what my ancestors went through. The Nommo lives within us and is represented in our ability to do things that would never be expected, the ability to do things that are unforeseen. She uses the example of the little boy that walks down the street that can rap a whole song from start to finish… rap 15 songs, start to finish, but can’t remember anything in school. We would get punished for that, right? But if you think about the Nommo, if you think about the student that lives within us, it’s possible! What is within a school, or whatever is within the westernized world isn’t Nommo and was not made for us. So when she talks about the Nommo, she’s also talking about the creative spirit that lives within us naturally. Like, even if you’re not a dancer, you might know how to move your hips. Even if you’re not a singer, you know how the rhythm on a song go, you know what I mean? 

Yes! Wow, that’s so powerful! Black people are so amazing, we just possess so much sauce from the ancestral realm. How do you use that spirit to push Black artists to be better?

I definitely push artists to dig deeper and find layers to their work. Even with all that is in us, I find that especially with Black artists I’ve noticed we lack confidence in ourselves and our work. But a lot of that has to do with the world we are living with. It’s my job to remind them of the spirit that lives within them, the Nommo. This is who we are, like the way I speak, the words that I make up that I want to, that’s a part it, and that’s all in play and that’s all in divine order. That’s how I envision my relationships with folks. If I can’t connect with folks like that, I won’t push my relationship with them.

I love to play games and this one is called “Complete The Sentences.” Let’s go!

Every Black artist should read…

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Our Ancestors…

Are one within us.

People should know that Scorpios…

Are very sensitive, fuckouttahere, but tough at the same time. Just deal with it.

Power is…

Inside you and dangerous if used correctly.

Autonomy for Sharayna looks like…

Internal love and external creation.

Caribbean women are…

Mystical.

Honey belongs on…

The small of my back.

Trust is…

Everything for me, it’s everything! It’s intimacy.

To be absent from the body is…

To be one with the spirit.

Leave us with a quote.

“Bless they heart.”

“To be truly free is to be in this present moment right here… right now.”

“I don’t want to.”

 

Portraits of Sharayna Christmas by Kirby Griffin. Art images courtesy of artists/Christmas.

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