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Inside the Private World of Amy Winehouse

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Mark Okoh, Camera Press London. Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. On view July 23–November 1, 2015. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

In 2011, the music world was rocked by the death of acclaimed British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. She hit the scene in 2003 with her debut album Frank and followed up three years later with her Grammy Award-winning album Back to Black, which featured hit singles "Rehab" and "You Know I'm No Good."

The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco recently unveiled their newest exhibition, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, which will run through November 1. Organized by the Jewish Museum London, the exhibition was put together in collaboration with Amy’s family and features some unique items from different chapters of her life.

The exhibition is truly a portrait of the girl behind the burgeoning star. The late singer’s brother, Alex, who shares some very interesting details about his sister, is the show’s narrator.  He very much sets the tone before you walk into the main room, as stated on one of the walls: “This is a snapshot of a girl who was, to her deepest core, simply a little Jewish kid from North London with a big talent who, more than anything, just wanted to be true to her heritage.”

As soon as you enter the gallery, there’s an immediate emphasis on how important family was in Amy’s life. There’s a family tree, as well as some history on the Winehouse family and how they came to England from Belarus. We learn about the influence of Amy and Alex’s Nan, Cynthia, who was described by her grandson as being “a strong woman. Small in height, but tall in stature.”

In the middle of the room there’s a callout to Amy’s London in the form of a map that shows all the places that held importance to her, such as homes, hangouts, their Nan’s house and Ben Winehouse’s barber shop. Her brother shares her enthusiasm for wanting to live in Camden and that she never was able to part with the first flat she purchased there.


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A young Amy outside her Grandma’s flat in Southgate. Photographer unknown © The Winehouse family. Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. On view July 23–November 1, 2015. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

Another touching highlight of A Family Portrait are portions of Amy’s essay from her 1997 audition at Sylvia Young Theatre School, which are reproduced on the walls.  A favorite: “But mostly I have this dream to be very famous. To work on stage. It’s a life-long ambition. I want people to hear my voice and just…forget their troubles for five minutes.”

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Amy’s guitar © The Jewish Museum. Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. On view July 23–November 1, 2015. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.

On the wall that shared Amy’s love of music, was a playlist “Songs on my chill-out tape,” which included artists ranging from Ella Fitzgerald, Carole King and Nina Simone to Pearl Jam and The Offspring. The music that’s playing as you walk around the exhibition is inspired by Amy’s “chill-out tape” playlist. The music section also includes selections from Amy’s vinyl and CD collection, as well as her prized guitar, which Alex shares was “possibly the worst musical instrument ever made—it sounds awful, isn’t very attractive, and the fretboard is as smooth as gravel. Despite this, she wrote many songs on it, and kept it even when she could afford much better guitars.”

In the section containing items from Amy’s home, you’ll find her love of the ‘50s and ‘60s, including her collection of magnets. There are ones from different states and others containing cheeky phrases, such as, “We’re not gossiping, we’re networking.”

Her wardrobe also reflected her old fashioned soul and the pieces included in the exhibition are exciting to look at. There are head scarves and shoes from such designers as Christian Louboutin, Miu Miu and Yves Saint Laurent. The Betsey Johnson dress she wore for her debut U.S. television appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman is also on display.

An obvious highlight for fans of Amy’s music is the portion of the show that’s dedicated to her career. On the wall is the aforementioned quote on ambition. Among the featured items, there’s a flyer from Amy’s 2004 UK tour, the dress she wore in her “Tears Dry On Their Own” music video and a poster of her Rolling Stone cover.

Rounding out the show is a nod to Amy’s legacy. Alex shares that their father set up the Amy Winehouse Foundation to continue the charity work Amy did “and to help the family’s wounds heal.” Installed are two birdcages that Amy owned, and according to her brother, she “never actually owned a bird, apart from one canary that soon went to bird heaven. Although the bird has flown, the birdcages remain…”

Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait presents a remarkable opportunity to learn more about the late singer, her heritage and get a glance of her private world.

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Installation view from Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, Jewish Museum London, July 3–September 15, 2013. Photo: Ian Lillicrapp. Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. On view July 23–November 1, 2015. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.


UPCOMING RELATED PROGRAMMING

UnderCover Presents: Amy Winehouse–The Singles

Thursday, Aug 13th, 6:30–9pm

Sunday, Aug 16th, 2–5pm

$25 general (includes Museum admission)

Three stylistically eclectic Bay Area bands honor the music of Amy Winehouse. Karina Denike, Midtown Social, and LoCura will put a new spin on the beloved artist’s work while showcasing the diversity and talent of Bay Area music.

 

Gallery Chat: Greil Marcus on the Interpretive Genius of Amy Winehouse

Friday, Aug 14th, 12:30–1pm

Free with Museum admission

Rock critic Greil Marcus discusses Winehouse’s unique interpretation of rock classics, drawing from his recent book The History of Rock ‘N’ Roll in Ten Songs.

 

Gallery Chat: Don Ed Hardy on Amy’s Tattoo

Friday, Aug 28th,  12:30–1pm

Free with Museum admission

Artist and tattoo master Don Ed Hardy discusses the history and meaning of Amy Winehouse’s tattoos.

 

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Festival passes, various dates. © The Jewish Museum/The Winehouse family. Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. On view July 23–November 1, 2015. The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.