Anna Ruth Henriques’ Song of Songs is a suite of paintings, each related to one of the eight verses in the Biblical Song of Solomon. The Song of Songs are at once rich and diverse in sources and imagery, melding references to Solomon’s lyric love poems with events from the artist’s life. Her imagery is dreamlike, presented in a stream-of-consciousness conveyed in the form of compartmentalized pictographs where lavish imagery mirrors the extravagant expressions of text.
Stylistically and symbolically, Henriques’ pictures are indebted to polyglot Caribbean traditions - Jewish and Christian, European, American and African, white and black. The artist’s own ancestry directly reflects these interwoven traditions. Her father’s family has roots in medieval Spain and was one of the earliest Jewish immigrant families to the New World. Her mother, a convert to Judaism, was more typical of the hybrid nature of Jamaican society - coming from a mix of African, Asian, and other European ancestry. Although raised Jewish and connected closely to Jewish religious traditions, Henriques proudly claims the island nation’s various cultures. Her complex identities work to link both Jewish, African and Chinese ancestry.
Concrete examples of this mix are evident throughout the suite. The island, the fish, the bottles at the bottom of the sea, and the airplane in the first picture all refer to Henriques' home. The blue bottles with the feather and cork relate to Obeah (voodoo) spells in which potions are sold to promise love or guarantee fidelity. The Star of David reappears to frame what the artist calls the “ever-presence of my Judaism and its coexistence with the other religions/belief systems in Jamaica.”
Henriques’ Song of Songs, an ode to love, couples the personal and the universal. At a time when much of contemporary art is purposefully provocative and offers highly charged critiques of society, her work seems an anomaly. It often concerns love for a parent, a partner, and humanity, as well as a love in which affection and tenderness displace protest and condemnation.
Henriques has been recognized as one of the most important contemporary painters of Jamaica. She has exhibited widely in numerous shows on the island. This and her recent participation in the major contemporary art show, New World Imagery: Contemporary Jamaican Art, at the Royal Festival Hall in London affirm her international status.
The suite was begun after the artist completed The Book of Mechtilde, an elegy inspired by The Book of Job commemorating her mother’s tragic and premature death. Biblical texts have often inspired the art of this Jamaican-born painter.