Emerante de Pradines-Morse was born in 1918, into a country under foreign occupation. While her father Auguste de Pradines, a legendary performer known as Candio, protested the U.S. marine invasion through his music, her mother stayed at home and tended to Emerante’s siblings. Emerante realized from a young age that the life of a house wife was not for her. She dreamed of being a performer like her father. Perhaps because of Candio’s politically subversive songs, Emerante began questioning whether the vodoun religion, made illegal by the Haitian civil code and persecuted by the U.S. marines, was actually evil. As a teenager she snuck out of her house at night to attend ceremonies at a nearby lakou, or traditional vodoun community. The aesthetic elements of vodoun- the songs, the dances, the sequined flags- took Emerante more than the religious aspect. She decided to dedicate her life to championing vodoun art.
“I said, here is something beautiful,” she tells me, in her voice gone reedy and high-pitched with age. “Why do people think it is so bad?”
At the Catholic school she attended in her hometown of Jacmel she befriended Martha Jean-Claude, who would later become a legendary singer. The Rex Theater, as well as the U.S. ambassador, hired the two girls to perform for them, although Martha asked Emerante to keep it a secret from the nuns who would not have approved of the friends singing traditional vodoun songs. In the end, Martha chose not to sing for the U.S. ambassador, leaving Emerante to carry off the performance herself. Several years later, Emerante released an album of vodoun folk songs, still available through the Smithsonian Folkways Collection, braving the prejudices of her fellow Haitian elites who accused her of betraying her social class.
Emerante’s connection to vodoun yielded many opportunities. When wealthy British eccentric and occultist Eileen Garrett came to Haiti to study clairvoyance in houngans (vodoun priests), Emerante was recommended to her as a research assistant. Garrett helped Emerante win a scholarship to study anthropology at Columbia University. While in New York Emerante also studied with Martha Graham and met her second husband, a Latin American history scholar named Richard McGee Morse. The couple went on to teach at Yale University, Richard in the Latin American studies department and Emerante at the School of Drama, where she coached actors like Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep in body movement.
Their son Richard Auguste Morse moved to Port-au-Prince in the mid-eighties, leasing the Hotel Oloffson from his mother’s first husband. Richard renovated the turn-of-the-century gingerbread mansion and formed a mizik razin (roots music) band called RAM with his wife Lunise as lead singer. When Aristide, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, was deposed by a C.I.A.-backed coup in 1991, Richard and Lunise protested through their music despite death threats from the ruling junta, continuing in the tradition of Candio and Emerante.
Emerante joined her son in Haiti in the mid-nineties. Today she is a slight, graceful ninety-seven year old known for her gracious spirit, brilliant intellect and seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy.
“I just plug in!” she told me once, when I asked her why she never seems to tire.
She runs a primary school across the street from her house in the mountains above Port-au-Prince. She is also building a school for the arts in the underdeveloped area of Pernier, to be called Ecole des Beaux Arts. While Emerante hopes that the school will bring revenue and investment to Pernier, she stresses the need for a spiritual rather than strictly utilitarian approach to development.
“Haitians are so used to poverty, to seeing ugliness, to seeing trash,” she says. “I want for us to have beauty, to have hope.”
Emerante intends for the school to become an international center for education and cultural exchange, with Haitian luminaries as well as visiting artists from around the world giving master classes to both children and adult students. Bahare Khodabandeh, an Iranian photojournalist and close personal friend of Emerante’s, has already agreed to spearhead the photography department at Ecole des Beaux Arts.
“Her mind is so incredible,” Bahare says of Emerante, with whom she has been living since April. “We’ll be sitting at the breakfast table drinking grapefruit juice and she’ll be talking to me about existentialism.”
Bahare has also agreed to take on fundraising for Ecole des Beaux Arts, whose construction is not yet complete. The website, too, is a work in progress. While Emerante is a force unto herself, it will take a lot of hands to bring her vision to life. If you believe, as she does, in preserving and championing Haitian art and culture, if you believe that arts education should be accessible to everyone, not only the affluent, please consider contributing. Ecole des Beaux Arts needs capital, of course, but it also needs partner organizations and consultants and teachers and visiting artists. Be a part of Emerante’s vision for Haiti. Be a part of Ecole des Beaux Arts.
For more information on how you can donate to or become involved with Ecole des Beaux Arts, please contact Bahare Khodabandeh at firstname.lastname@example.org
The view from the roof of the construction site