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Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait
Image Credit: Mark Okoh - Camera Press London
Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait
Image Credit: Jon Holloway

Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait

21 March 2017 Belphoebe New

You might think you know Amy Winehouse. The caricatured, instantly recognisable figure in tiny 1950s style dotted dresses with a colossal beehive of black hair, stumbling out of clubs and splashed on the front pages of tabloids. A prodigiously talented musical artist whose turbulent private life often took centre stage, a gifted but tragic figure. But inevitably, there was a side of Amy that we would never be able to know, which this tender exhibition at the Jewish Museum gives us an insight into. Beyond her celebrity status, Amy was a Jewish girl from North London, just one part of a large, noisy and loving family. This exhibition, co-curated by her brother Alex, brings together some of her belongings, a mixture of some of her iconic performance outfits and family photographs, giving an alternative portrait of Amy, far from the media sensationalism.

Walking through the exhibition, we’re listening to one of the chill-out playlists that Amy made. Incorporating a truly eclectic mix of Amy’s musical tastes, from Pearl Jam to The Mickey Mouse club, it demonstrates her endless love of music. You could easily be inside Amy’s house, surrounded by some of her most precious objects, from those famous scuffed ballet shoes to the Sudoku puzzles she’d wile away the hours completing. Family photographs lie in old trunks and are dangled from the ceiling like mobiles, whilst reflections and anecdotes on Amy’s life are printed on the walls.
 
Significantly, A Family Portrait explores Amy’s Jewish identity. We see a family tree revealing that Amy’s paternal great-great grandparents were immigrants from Belarus, and it’s clear that Amy’s Jewish roots were important to her. One of the standout pieces of the exhibition is a Jewish cookbook Amy was gifted because she wanted to learn how to make a good chicken soup. Although in an anecdote from her brother he says that her own version wasn’t quite up to scratch, he admits she did make brilliant meatballs.


Photo credit: Jon Holloway
 
Amy’s life at school is also touched upon, displaying her uniform from her time at the Sylvia Young Theatre School and an early performance from the age of 16 that perfectly demonstrates her unique singing talent and utterly distinctive voice. A school photo on display is particularly indicative of her personality. She sits at the centre of her classmates, leaning forward confidently whilst her classmates stand rigid, with a mischievous smirk on her face. If there is any object in the exhibition that indicates Amy’s obvious star quality and the path that her career would end up taking, it’s certainly that one.  


Photo credit: Jon Holloway
 
Alongside snippets from Amy’s private life, there are some recognisable outfits from her public appearances, including a spectacular Luella Bartley flower appliquéd gown that she wore at Glastonbury and an American Apparel top and tiny shorts that she was often seen in. So often associated with the dramatic elements of her career and some of her more hazardous public appearances, it’s refreshing to see these outfits in the context of Amy’s own clear passion for style, and particularly her apparent love of collecting skyscraper high heels.


Photo credit: Jon Holloway
 
Although the exhibition covers just two rooms, it would be easy to lose many hours exploring A Family Portrait. Ultimately, it serves to show Amy as a normal young woman with slightly quirky interests and some dear possessions, whilst simultaneously covering some of the influences and the unique qualities that made her a star. Most significantly and refreshingly, it makes no reference to the tired, tragic narrative we’re so used to associating her with. It’s an insight into an icon that was not just a larger-than-life star, but a human who held her religious identity and her family close to her, and certainly a must-see exhibition for anyone who stills holds Amy’s memory dear.  
 
Amy Winehouse, A Family Portrait runs 16 March – 24 September 2017 at The Jewish Museum. The standard entrance fee to the museum applies. Find out more here.

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