SINGER Amy Winehouse was known for her passion for music and fashion, but an exhibition on the life of the Grammy Award-winning star, who died in 2011 after battling with drug and alcohol addiction, reveals a strong bond with her Jewish family.
Winehouse was hailed as a breakthrough jazz-soul singer when she released her first album, Frank, in 2003 and won five Grammy awards for her second album, Back to Black. Her posthumous record, Lioness: Hidden Treasures, achieved huge sales.
In 2013 London’s Jewish Museum staged Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait after gaining unprecedented access to family photographs, Winehouse’s designer clothes, record collection, concert tickets and other memorabilia, thanks largely to input from Winehouse’s brother Alex and his wife Riva Lefton.
The popular exhibition travelled to San Francisco, Vienna, Tel Aviv and Amsterdam and enjoyed a return season in London this year. Recently the Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait exhibition opened in Melbourne at the Jewish Museum of Australia (JMA) for an exclusive five-month season.
JMA special projects curator Juliette Hanson, who has been working on the Melbourne exhibition for the past year, said: “People are fascinated with Amy and want to find out more about her. All the items from the London Jewish Museum will be on display in Melbourne, plus a few additions including sketch designs of some of Amy’s tattoos.”
She added: “It was important to be faithful to the original design because the Winehouse family was very invested in the exhibition. They wanted it presented in a particular way – even the colours of the walls were specific to reflect Amy’s favourite colours.”
The exhibition reveals Winehouse’s roots and provides a window into her family life.
“It’s 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,” writes her brother, Alex, in one caption.
Among the exhibits is an old suitcase filled with family photographs, which the 27-year-old had been looking through with her father Mitch just days before she died.
A section of the exhibition is dedicated to the Back to Black singer’s Jewish history and strong connection with her roots.
Among the exhibits is a copy of Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, which Alex gave to his sister for her birthday in 2002.
He writes: “I bought it for her because she wanted to know how to make chicken soup. It wasn’t a particularly great creation. Her meatballs were always excellent though.”
There is also a large family tree which traces Amy’s roots back to her great-great-grandfather Harris Winehouse, who arrived in London from Belarus in 1890.
Alex quips: “He came to London by mistake. He was supposed to be going to New York, but now the thought of us being from anywhere else seems ridiculous. 120 years later we’re still here and still proud of our roots.”
Amy’s guitar has pride of place in the exhibition.
“It was her favourite guitar that she used to write many of her songs,” said Hanson.
There’s a photograph of Amy at 15 wearing her uniform of the Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade, and one of her brother Alex at his bar mitzvah with parents Mitch and Janis.
An extensive range from her record collection is included in the exhibition, featuring some of her favourite singers including Carole King, Tony Bennett and Aretha Franklin.
When Winehouse was starting out, she kept all the backstage passes and wristbands she received when performing at festivals.
Hanson said: “The exhibition covers areas that were really important to Amy. It covers family, music, fashion and legacy including the Amy Winehouse Foundation. It provides a personal portrait of her family life and Jewish heritage which were not always visible in her public life.”
JMA director Rebecca Forgasz commented: “The Jewish Museum is perhaps an unexpected venue for an exhibition about Amy Winehouse. But Amy’s brother, Alex, was adamant that this was the best place to tell her story, because being Jewish was so much a part of who she was. We are thrilled to celebrate the life of such an extraordinary musician and artist.”
Also on display at JMA is The First Waves: Russian Jewish Migration, 1881-1922, which follows the first two of five waves of Russian-Jewish immigrants on their path to making Australia their new home.
During this period more than two million Jews left Russia seeking a better life on distant shores as they escaped war, revolution, anti-Semitic violence and persecution.
Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait is at the Jewish Museum of Australia, 26 Alma Rd, St Kilda until March 25, 2018. Bookings: www.jewishmuseum.com.au
REPORT by Danny Gocs