Originally staged in 2013, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait, after an international tour, has come back to the Jewish Museum for a last show. It was the first time I saw it, but I was intrigued by this exhibition which toured for almost four years. I was not disappointed.
When an exhibition is made about an artist, it often tells the story of his/her career and life, narrated, explained and shown with objects from a magazine cover to a piece of clothing. A Family Portrait is different, and especially because it is ‘a family portrait’. The curator is Amy’s brother, Alex. Although he worked alongside the museums’ curators, he is the voice of the exhibition. It is thus heavily emotional.
It begins in the entrance: a video of a live performance, one of her famous dresses, a touching note from her brother and several others from fans; she’s here, and it’s about love. Then the exhibition is one room only, which, grouping all the objects in one place, helps bringing emotions. It’s a collection of memories. Amy’s school uniform and ‘Snoopy Star’ book, her guitar and collection of CDs, some of her fashion, family’s photographs … fill the space. They are organized in small sections which guide the visitor and regulates his/her reception.
The best moment is about Amy’s time at Sylvia Young Theatre School. A video of the young artist performing allows to appreciate her talent and the most exquisite facsimile of an essay she wrote shows her love for the arts of the stage and determination to succeed: ‘I want people to hear my voice and just … forget their troubles for five minutes’, did she wrote. In the central display, one cabinet showcases several wristbands that Amy wore going to festivals and at the end, a suitcase is filled up with photographs. These repetitions of the same objects foster emotions. The uncrowded space punctuated with quotes from Amy, spontaneous captions and three coloured displays (blue, rose and yellow) and wrapped with the artist’s favourite songs, does not tell the visitor what to think or feel. That’s why it precisely allows to let things go and feel nostalgic. It is about story-telling. It is about memory.
If you don’t know who Amy Winehouse is, the exhibition does not tell you. It is a show for fans, for people who listened to her music, who have already been seduced, and need to remember or say goodbye one more time. It is about the relationship you have had with the artist. If you have never had one, I doubt that the exhibition will help you get one. It is not the objective here.
Regarding curatorial practices, a few ideas can be stolen. First, the coloured display cases have no glass: it gives a sense of proximity appreciated in this instance. Secondly, as already mentioned, the repetition of an object can be a impactful way of fostering emotions. Then, this show reminds us that objects are powerful in themselves, and sometimes, do not need any mediation.
Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait is a very smart exhibition. One room full of emotions which brings you directly back to the time when Amy used to sing, making you fall in love again. But it is not about the singer or the star, it is about the daughter, the sister, the woman. In the words of her 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 who, more than anything, just wanted to be true to her heritage’.
(Photo credit: Maxime Laprade)