Where Ecology Meets Sacrality

February 2022

Valérie Loichot, Water Graves: The Art of the Unritual in the Greater Caribbean (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2020); 287 pages; ISBN 978-0813943800 (ebook)

Water Graves, an interdisciplinary tour de force that centers on artistic representations of water deaths in the Greater Caribbean, signals a turning point in the fields of Caribbean studies and the environmental humanities. Its theoretical kernel is the “relational ecological sacred” (40),  a concept that Loichot develops to understand art and literature about lives not only lost to water but also condemned to a state of “unritual,” defined as the “privation of ritual” (7). Loichot argues that creative works addressing water deaths, be they those of enslaved people thrown overboard during the Middle Passage or of the growing victims of hurricanes and floods, “pick up a sacred function” because they replace missing rites  (18; emphasis mine). This sacrality can often be linked to religions such as Vaudou and Catholicism but is by no means limited to them; it exceeds any single formal religion and instead fuses with the ecology of the aquatic environment. Additionally, Loichot argues, no creative project can apprehend the disaster of collective death alone. Rather, works of art and literature function in “relay” or Glissantian relationality, which refers to the coming together of disciplines, artists and critics in order to confront “the epistemological abyss of the unknown” (19).

Loichot’s theoretical framework grows from her late mentor Édouard Glissant’s 2009  Philosophie de la Relation, one of his later works that explored his increasing “ecocritical consciousness” (28). The first of Water Graves five chapters, “Relational Sacred,” weaves the conceptual scaffolding for the rest of the text. “Relational Sacred” invites us to reflect on the Caribbean philosopher’s grave: nestled in the Martinican coastline, embedded within the community of Le Diamant and yet looking out toward the sea, the monument seamlessly blends into the surrounding landscape (27). It thus emblematizes the Glissantian concept of the entour, which reconceptualizes “nature” and “culture” as existing “on a continuum” rather than “in a system of opposition” (28). The epitaph on Glissant’s grave, “Rien n’est vrai, tout est vivant” (Nothing is true, all is alive), dismantles yet another binary as it encourages us “to consider death as a transformational mode in movement and flux with nature rather than a stasis in being” (45). Building on this insight of death as the beginning of a new relationship with the more-than-human environment, Loichot later brilliantly extends the Glissantian concept of creolization to go beyond “human difference,” instead “reaching a transspecies, transelement dimension whereby the animal, the human, the vegetal and even the inorganic materiality of metal or stone are agents in solidarity” (70).

As hinted above, Water Graves is Glissantian not only in content but also in method: it employs a “relational and creolizing methodology” that brings together poetry, literary criticism, mixed-media art, personal testimony, popular culture, religious symbols, underwater sculpture, and Caribbean mythology (25). Often it questions the boundaries between modes of thinking and functioning. For example, in chapter 2, “Graves for Katrina,” the author challenges rectangularity by exploring “hyper-rectangles” that paradoxically “dissolve or liquefy” in the artistic pieces of Radcliffe Bailey, Epaul Julien, and Eric Waters (64, 69; italics in the original). In chapter 5, “Stone Pillow and Bone Water,” Loichot rethinks poetry as fluid sculpture through the works of poets Natasha Trethewey and M. NourbeSe Philip.

In Water Graves, Caribbean mythology is not a mere object of study but rather a generator of rich analytical frameworks. For example, chapter 4, “Drowned,” is undergirded by the Haitian concept of anba dlo (below water) as a realm of “departure, connection and rebirth” (148). Drawing primarily from the art of Jason deCaires Taylor and Édouard Duval Carrié, Loichot argues that the artistic pieces are rendered “animate” by “the living relation that they form with their ecosystem” (137). Chapter 3, “Mami Water the Formidable” (further discussed below), draws theoretical sustenance from the eponymous “great female ruler of the sea in Vaudou tradition,” a sacred creolized figure who bridges the shores of the living and the underwater realm of the dead (106).

The lines of inquiry of Water Graves are simultaneously critical, pedagogical, and ethical; its concerns are as relevant to the classroom as to the daily newsstand. The author argues that the performance of rituals is a “basic human right” (1) and insists that victims of the unritual are casualties not only of the aquatic environment but, even more so, of the societies and ideologies that murder them, both literally and symbolically. Committed to posing hard questions, Loichot joins scholars Saidiya Hartman and Sander Gilman, writer Susan Sontag, and artist Kara Walker in wondering, How does one represent violence without reproducing it? This interrogation is most fully explored in “Mami Water the Formidable.” This chapter revolves around two Black female artists, Kara Walker and Beyoncé, who have faced allegations of profiting artistically and financially from human—particularly Black—tragedy (124). As Loichot engages with the rich equivocality of the artists’ works, she is careful to note her own fraught positionality: “The critic who exposes such works,” she writes in the introduction, “yet another time also walks a fine line between reproducing the unritual and providing a critical aperture, a space to think, feel, mourn, and eventually act” (17). Here, she is also adamant to not let readers off the hook: “To me, the danger of Walker’s art lies more in the reception and the public’s reaction rather than her representation” (121). Loichot eventually invites us into her classroom, explaining which materials she chooses to bring into it (or not), and demonstrating how she and her students attempt, together, the act of “working through” (123). Such a discussion is valuable to all of us who, as contemporary news consumers, have to parse through the “quotidian unritual of representation” that pervades our screens and lives (16).

While Water Graves has clear spatial and temporal moorings—it focuses on creative projects from the Greater Caribbean region and produced after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, respectively—the author is clear about the “planetary dimensions” and wide-ranging temporal resonances of her arguments (224). She makes a strong case for the relevance of her analysis to the Mediterranean, particularly in the discussion of Alan Kurdi’s photo in chapter 3 and in the epilogue. One cannot help but wish Loichot had sketched out similar links to the Indian Ocean (briefly alluded to in chapter 4) and the Pacific Ocean (not present). From a temporal perspective, she argues that water graves are palimpsestic in a way that defies any “end date” (2): “Instead of receding, the memory of the drowned victims of the middle passage resurface at an alarming rate with the mass drownings of exiles and refugees” (6). Having outlined this pattern of aquatic tragedy, however, Water Graves is ultimately hopeful without being unrealistic. Concurring with Saidiya Hartman, Loichot recognizes that “art in the face of the unritual is not a matter of absolution, victorious redemption, or putting the dead and the living at peace” (6).1 These objectives are not attainable. Rather, readers leave Water Graves inspired by the tireless and courageous attempts of art, and of scholarship such as Loichot’s, to show that “in death, as much as in life, all humans deserve dignity” (25).


Nikhita Obeegadoo is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University. Her research explores contemporary literatures of traumatic oceanic migrations in the Indian Ocean and Caribbean. During the 2021–22 academic year, her work is supported by a Mellon ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship.


[1] See Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007).