Amy Winehouse, behind the beehive

By Jenny Valentish
An exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Australia pieces together missing components of the late singer’s identity

“This is not a shrine or memorial to someone who has died,” a placard cautions at the beginning of the exhibition Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait (until 25 March).

They’re the words of Alex Winehouse, who seeks to broaden the tabloid narrative that trapped his sister. Here, at St Kilda’s Jewish Museum of Australia, the singer is remembered as “a little Jewish kid from North London with a big talent”. And with a great collection of shoes.

Amy Winehouse’s happy place was the chintzy home of her grandmother Cynthia. To examine the portraits of this impossibly glamorous matriarch is to shiver – the resemblance is uncanny. The two women shared a love of tarot, bouffant hair and sudoku books. And, as Alex notes, “We could smoke with her.” Their bond was such that Amy got a tattoo of Cynthia as a young pin-up on her arm, as crudely perky as Olive Oyl.

The Winehouse ancestors came from Belarus, and the branches of the family tree fill one wall. Amy was a secular Jew, but she attended Hebrew school once a week, and is pictured in her Jewish Lads’ and Girls’ Brigade uniform in Cynthia’s befrilled lounge room.

The flipside to her nature was that she had an utter disregard for authority. A school photograph from 1994 shows Winehouse middle-row centre, elbows resting on her knees. She eyeballs the camera as her classmates perch primly around her. A few steps away from this display there’s video footage of a concert put on by the Sylvia Young Theatre School. Winehouse takes the lead and reveals a delivery that, already, is all her own: a touch of swagger and those curious, jerky nana-moves, with the forearms extending perpendicularly from her waist. Soon after this performance it was decided that she should leave the school prematurely, given her tendency to be easily bored and consequently disruptive.

Winehouse was drawn to the boozy underbelly and rockabilly flirtation of Camden Town, where she got a job in the market, selling candles. She moved there for good around 2000, when the suburb was fast becoming the hectic tourist trap it is now. The music-scene pubs she frequented – the Good Mixer and the Hawley Arms – were on the brink of becoming tourist destinations themselves, but the jukeboxes were irresistible to a kid who’d appropriated her father’s and brother’s record collections. (A mixtape Winehouse once made plays throughout this exhibition: Nina Simone, Carole King, The Offspring.)

The most arresting image is a huge photograph of Winehouse leaning on a mantel in her Camden Town front room. There are so many framed pictures behind her that the wall is barely visible: vintage Vogue covers, Marilyn Monroe pictures and tear sheets of languid models mingle with family snaps. Winehouse had been riffling through a box of family photos days before she died, Alex says. It paints a picture of a girl both loyal and sentimental.

And this introduces the dichotomy of his sister’s personality. As a counterpoint to the blood ties, there are the external influences, constructed like armour. Here’s the vintage bar; the fuck-me pumps (as she called them); the Bukowski novels (Alex says she hid her Dostoevsky collection in the wardrobe); the many and varied hair scarves to wrap around the beehive. Each cartoon component locks the real woman securely away, as surely as that 2D tattoo.

What would have happened to all those personality trinkets if Winehouse had successfully sobered up? A huge fear for those quitting drugs and alcohol is the loss of identity. It’s not something to dwell on for too long though, since this exhibition encourages visitors to check their sense of tragedy at the door. The only sombre moment comes from Winehouse herself, in footage of a performance of ‘Back to Black’ that plays in the final room. Filmed for the Irish TV show Other Voices, in 2006, Winehouse comes close to tears as the song draws to its conclusion, touching her neck and wringing her hands. But it’s a moment that belongs to her.

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist. Her first nonfiction book, Woman of Substances, was recently published by Black Inc.