Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait

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Amy Winehouse cooking chicken soup? This incongruous image of the famously bohemian singer is conjured up by a Claudia Roden Jewish cookery book. An inscription inside the front cover reads: ‘In case of loss of faith, turn to page 75.’ It is signed by Winehouse’s brother Alex. And on page 75 is a recipe for faith-affirming Jewish chicken soup. 

The book is one of many poignant exhibits in the show at the Jewish Museum in Camden. Co-curated by Amy’s brother and sister-in-law, it’s an examination of her Jewish family origins which feels quite unique: in the past Winehouse’s life has been raked over in (often intrusive) detail, but surprisingly little has been written about her Jewish background.

Initially, the family approached the museum to suggest loaning one of the singer’s dresses to tie in with the second anniversary of her death and her thirtieth birthday. ‘Her roots are Jewish (through her parents Mitch and Janice) and Camden was home for so much of her life,’ says curator Liz Selby. ‘The more we talked, the more it became about her roots.’ The exhibition that grew out of that dialogue is narrated through the eyes of Alex, 34, who provides a series of candid and affectionate captions recalling an upbringing that wasn’t particularly religious but was suffused with traditions that most British Jews would recognise. Winehouse grew up celebrating the Friday night Shabbat meal with her family, and regularly visited the family barber shop in the East End (where Mitch’s family settled after emigrating from Belarus in the nineteenth century).

Among dozens of previously unexhibited photographs, one shows a nine-year-old Winehouse peering pensively out from a family group at her brother’s bar mitzvah. Old black-and-white photos introduce her glamorous East End grandmother Cynthia (who once dated Ronnie Scott) in Minnie Mouse platform shoes, thick lipstick and fringe – the influence is easy to spot.

Among other personal items, there are dresses, including the blue sequinned number worn at Glastonbury in 2008; books, ranging from a Snoopy paperback to a hardback on serial killers; and a red jumper from the Sylvia Young Theatre School (which Winehouse attended for two years until she was expelled at 14) with her name tag sewn into it. Sections of an essay written for the Sylvia Young entrance audition are interspersed among the exhibits. The final excerpt finishes with the plea: ‘I want people to hear my voice’ [and remember] ‘me… for just being me’.

For someone who died so tragically, this is an exhibition bursting with warmth, life and affection. In the words of her big brother, ‘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.’

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It was a pleasant surprise coming across this exhibition located at the top floor of the Jewish Museum. The exhibits include Amy's Jewish ancestry, childhood items, personal collections like fridge magnets, clothes and guitar as well as music records. Amy had a bold public image but this exhibition showed her human side. It showed that she had a normal childhood, was very talented at music and worked hard to achieve what she believed in. She believed that blues, jazz and soul were the essence of music. We could certainly see this in her songs. The exhibition was nice but was not really interesting to me. Perhaps it was because I m not an avid fan of hers. Or perhaps because of the contrast in depth between the Jewish exhibits downstairs and this one.


I explore this exhibition as part of a late event with talks workshops and live music, so it is worth checking the museum calendar for any similar events as it was a great experience overall. This exhibition gives a very personal insight into Amy's family background and upbringing and is Co-curated by Amy’s brother Alex and her sister-in-law. Featuring items both from her musical career and home life but unlike Asif Kapadia's fantastic documentary film the exhibition deliberately avoids any mention of her battle with drugs and alcohol, and also largely ignores her public profile. There are however a few items from her stage life items such as backstage passes she decided to hang on to, and some of her favoured outfits including the tiny dress she performed in at Glastonbury. From her home life, you can check out her record collection, photos and fridge magnets and even touchingly her old school uniform with her name badge sewn in on the back of her tie. Overall a very poignant and personal exhibition and although celebrating the good times is also a reminder of what a tragic loss both publicly but also privately her family have faced.

Em 25 de agosto estive na Exposição. Lá fiquei por duas horas...atônito e perplexo com cenas da trajetória da superstar que infelizmente nos deixou.Nesse tempo...refleti e flanei pelas cenas,pelos fatos, pelas fotos, filmes e memórias de alguém que , sem dúvidas, era gente como a gente.Emocionado com tanta coisa que ví....Mala com fotos,lista de músicas prediletas com a sua letrinha....os vídeos da roupas que um dia seu corpo vestiu. Percebi que em uma curtíssima vida, ela conseguiu fazer de sua história....uma história extraordinária! Ao sair do Jewish Museum fui a casa onde morou,orei por ela e um jornalista da TimeOut pede-me uma entrevista sobre Amy....e antes de eu começar a falar...ele retira o adesivo do Museu...que era um adesivo colado a minha camisa.....

looking forward to seeing this exhibition... its touching because one can see the real Amy...talented, intelligent, with familiar roots and strong feelings for her family , not to talk about the most beautiful voice ever and the emotional lyrics that touched so many around the world

Interesting..Amy was one of the best singers here in UK and I could not believe still she already died..Gone too soon indeed..But I guess this family portrait will show the real Amy..I am looking forward to this Claudine Moments Captured Photography