The complimentary exhibitions, Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait and You Know I’m No Good opened on July 23 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and will continue until November 1, 2015. Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait is the intimate story of Amy Winehouse as a young Jewish girl growing up in London. The exhibit is narrated through her personal possessions — her application to a performing arts school, a leather suitcase filled with photographs of her family and her collection of designer heels used for performances are among a few of the more notable items. Winehouse, who died in 2007, was a singer-songwriter known for her multi-faceted musical style — a mixture of blues, soul, jazz and reggae.
The partnering exhibit, You Know I’m No Good, features three contemporary artists’ works inspired by Winehouse’s public and musical images.
Though many remember the struggling side of Winehouse associated with substance abuse, these two exhibits (alongside the museum’s public programs) work together to paint an unseen, familial picture of the singer.
After interviewing one of the curators of the show, Pierre-François Galpin, I discovered that the exhibit Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait was originally created by the Jewish Museum in London. The current exhibit at the CJM is the show’s first appearance in the United States. Galpin gave me an inside look at the process of curation. Although this particular exhibit was borrowed, for the CJM installation, the staff chose new details for the design and graphics. For example, they chose a bubblegum pink paint color (surprisingly Winehouse’s favorite) for the entrance of the exhibit and removed the glass protective cases to create a more personal experi- ence for the viewer. He noted that the typical process of deciding the focus of a show includes studio and gallery visits, internet research and viewing current exhibitions around the Bay Area.
One of the most controversial aspects of the exhibit is its focus on her identity as a Jewish daughter and sister rather than her darker side. Galpin noted that this question was debated in-house as well, since the show portrays Winehouse in a positive light. This is understandable because her brother, Alex Winehouse, helped curate the show — he wanted to share his personal and endearing relationship with his sister. Most people are already familiar with the tabloid stories of Winehouse’s addictions and so this take on her life is refreshing and gives the viewer a behind the scenes look.
However, the staff at the CJM still wanted to ensure a balance between the positive and negative. Galpin mentioned that this was one of the reasons the curatorial staff chose to commission the second exhibit, You Know I’m No Good. These artists painted, filmed and drew pieces that reflected the darker side of the singer. Rachel Harrison, an artist from New York, created a series of untitled drawings that portray Winehouse alongside notable figures from art history, like Picasso.
In addition, the CJM’s public program department is offering events that help balance the exhibit and create a dialogue about the artist’s life and battles. On September 20, 2015 the Museum co-planned Do Tears Dry On Their Own? Life Skills, Art, and Amy Winehouse alongside Oasis for Girls, an organization that empowers young women and teen girls, which focused on stress and depression in relation to everyday decisions. Throughout the span of the exhibit, there were also numerous gallery talks including a chat with Don Ed Hardy about the meanings behind Winehouse’s tattoos and another with Shaina Hammerman, a scholar of Jewish history and culture, focusing on the British Jews in Downtown Abbey.
Cecile Puretz, the director of access and inclusion at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, explained the sentiment and purpose behind the Do Tears Dry On Their Own? Life Skills, Art, and Amy Winehouse workshop. She says, “Everyone knows the Amy Winehouse of the tabloid magazines who very publicly struggled with so much, but through this workshop we aimed to shift that negative and overly-stigmatized perception, and to draw attention to Amy’s complexity and vulnerability as a human being who had tremendous talent and passion. In our society, mental health, substance abuse, and eating disorders carry so much stigma and shame, and as a museum we felt it was important to create a space that openly talked about these issues that are faced by so many young people.”
Puretz believes that the health and wellness of teenagers are crucial issues in the community and that the Amy Winehouse exhibit provides the perfect opportunity to create a dialogue. She aimed to plan a workshop that would discuss Winehouse’s own issues while “scaffolding on those discussions with tangible life skills and self-esteem building activities that could guide them towards safe and healthy decisions in the contexts of their own individual lives and struggles”. Her last goal was to show that art and music are healthy outlets to relieve stress and depression.
Although Winehouse died at the age of 27, her impact continues. While observing her personal items, such as her tour suitcase filled with stolen family photos, and listening to her mixtape of Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, one is reminded of the person behind the image. Amy Winehouse was a Jewish girl living in London who loved designer heels and reading novels and this exhibit is her family portrait.
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