Valérie Loichot
Water Graves: The Art of the Unritual in the Greater Caribbean
University of Virginia Press, 2020
287 pages

Reviewed by Mónica B. Ocasio Vega

Valerie Loichot’s Water Graves, examines the relation between life, death, and water. From events such as the Parsley Massacre and the Middle Passage, to catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina, Loichot reads spaces that are signified by what she calls the unritualor the obstruction of the sacred. More specifically, she focuses her study on the bodies of water of the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico to analyze the aesthetic practices born in the absence of death rituals. The five chapters that make up the book contain a variety of texts: sculptures, ceramics, poetry, fiction, paintings, audiovisual, and mix-media. The wide array of artists featured in this book include painters such as Kara Walker, musicians like Beyoncé, photographers Epaul Julien and Eric Waters, sculptors Radcliffe Bailey, Jason deCaires Taylor, and Édouard Duval-Carrié, and poets and performers like Édouard Glissant, M. NourbeSe Philip, Natasha Trethewey, and Gabrielle Civil.      

The book proposes two principal theoretical concepts. The first one, the unritual, is explained as the obstruction of the sacred when black lives are lost. Rituals, Loichot says, “are understood as a defining mark of humanity.” In this sense, the unritual builds on ideas of the undead to explore that which lingers between life and death and what is considered human and non-human. The second theoretical concept is the ecological sacred, or a “relational ecological sacred” which builds on Édouard Glissant’s work of relation, poetics, and the abyss. Loichot finds that all of the artists compiled in this book are dealing with a sort of ecological sacred as they “provide sacred objects and rituals through a connection among humans, aurochs, fish, coral, seaweed, swamp, sea, cotton, tar, railroad shards, salvaged window frames, preserved legal documents, trash, and mud.”

A tour through the chapters of this book will reveal a Caribbean network of mourning born out of the creolized spaces of New Orleans, Haiti, the Gulf of Mexico, and Martinique. Chapter One considers Loichot’s theoretical parting point through which she thinks about artistic practices of the unritual in these spaces parting from Édouard Glissant’s notion of the “open boat” and the “submarine grave of drowned Africans” where everything is dissolved and yet it is also birthed. Chapter Two explores art representations of Radcliffe Bailey, Epaul Julien, and Eric Waters as acts of mourning in the context of Hurricane Katrina. The analysis of the works invites us to consider the artist’s use of the shape of the rectangle as an act of mourning in which they are both “window watchers and casket carriers.” Even more, it asks for readers to question: what does it mean to create in the wake of a disaster?

Chapter Three analyses the “staging of Mami Wata” in Kara Walker’s After the Deluge and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The reading of a staging of Mami Wata—also known in other religious practices as Lasiwen, Lasiwen-Labalen, Manman Dlo, Lamente, la Sirena, and Yemaya—allows Loichot to consider the flux between the dead, the living, the human, and the parahuman through water. This is one of her most well-thought essays as it condenses her conceptualizations about the relational sacred, Fred Moten’s the terribly beautiful, and the ecological sacred. Her reading of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video pays special attention to the scene in which Beyoncé is on top of the police car and that concludes with the sinking of both the car and Beyoncé. Loichot proposes we read this sinking scene as Mami Wata’s sinking. By doing so, it points toward a simultaneity of separation and relating with death.

However, Loichot fails to push this reading further by taking two things into account that would amplify her discussion of the ecological sacred. The first is that the “Formation” video seems to represent a funeral for the city. Loichot guides us through a close reading of the elements of the unritual in Beyoncé’s work in the New Orleans space while not stressing the belonging of the lost lives to the city itself. Mami Wata can be seen then “opening the door to the sacred for the victims of the unritual” and the city is one of the victims. The second is the scene that shows the group of dancers led by Beyoncé in formation on what appears to be an empty pool. By paying attention to these bodies in the pool, we see underwater bodies. These bodies underwater blur the distinction of the submerged body and the body about to be born as it emphasizes a becoming body.

This consideration would have been in sync with Loichot’s proposal in chapter four dedicated to the works of artists Jason deCaires Taylor and Édoard Duval Carrie. In chapter four she emphasizes the drowning of sculptures instead of their sinking to point to a transformation from inanimate to animate objects submerged underwater. Finally, chapter five continues the discussion around sculpture, although the materiality she follows are words. She proposes a reading of Natasha Trethewy’s Native Guard and M. NourbeSe Phillip’s Zong! that considers both authors as “sculptors who shape the raw materiality of words into highly significant forms.” The chapter argues that the raw materiality both writers employ provide “graves, stones, or monuments to the neglected, forgotten, or desecrated dead.”

Water Graves contributes to the growing field that follows the intersections between wake, mourning, death, and life within critical race theory. The book seeks to establish a dialogue with works like Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake and Joseph Roach’s Cities of the Dead. By doing so, Water Graves invites us to converse, imagine, honor, mourn, celebrate, listen, and give voices to the dead and the undead.