By Frances Howe, LLB
I don’t remember any significant moment growing up where I became conscious of who Amy Winehouse was. Born in 1999 myself, Winehouse’s albums are a component part of the sonic wallpaper that made up the sound of my childhood. The first sleepover party I ever went to when I was seven years old was celebrity themed and the hostess (also seven though turning eight) went dressed as Amy Winehouse. Decked out with the beehive and temporary tattoos, fishnets, heels and candy cigarettes (which were also included in our gift bags and promptly confiscated by my dad when he came to pick me up), I remember already knowing who Winehouse was; the costume didn’t need explaining. And so I can’t possibly give you a pivotal moment of my discovery of Amy Winehouse nor her music.
I moved to North London from Australia when I was eighteen. I got a job in a pub in Primrose Hill and after work we would go out in Camden where several bars offer late night solace to the few of us just ending our work days at midnight. On either side of Chalk Farm Road, in every pub, bar or club in Camden (I have tested this theory for three years and it still stands true), in every ladies toilet stall is an ode to Amy Winehouse. My interest in Winehouse’s music and career grew from this point culminating in dragging my then boyfriend to Winehouse’s home in Camden Square with no other reason than just to see it for myself.
‘Amy: Beyond the Stage’ opened at the Design Museum in Kensington on 26 November 2021. The exhibition is dedicated to Winehouse’s career with a particular focus on her wardrobe, and promises to give visitors a rare glimpse into Winehouse’s life and career through the display of personal items that have never been exhibited before. This is an ambitious promise for a life already so well documented.
This protrusion of the end of Amy’s life at the start of the exhibition is intentional.
As soon as you enter the exhibition, Amy’s voice beckons from the next room. High on a big screen is a loop of Winehouse’s performances throughout her career. But without wanting to jump the gun, I took my time reading the first placard. At the bottom a notice to visitors shares the exhibition’s desire to celebrate Winehouse’s career without ignoring her struggles with mental health, substance abuse and disordered eating. This protrusion of the end of Amy’s life at the start of the exhibition is intentional, for even as I move around the walls following Amy’s life and career chronologically, the road sign to Camden Square where Winehouse would pass away, stands centred in the room. Memorabilia of guitars, song lyrics, of an invitation to audition at the Brit School and of Amy’s personal CD collection among other things are accompanied by signage in the form of ripped out notebook pages that mimic Winehouse’s notebooks which sit on display for the first time.
The exhibition grows out of Winehouse’s childhood and into the release of Frank (2003) and then to Back to Black (2006). If we choose to, we can listen to the music that influenced her own, or to Mark Rohnson speaking from a BBC documentary clip on the production in Back to Black. Whilst this room is a nice homage to Winehouse, the exhibition at times feels like a regurgitation of clips accessible to anyone online already.
A homage to Camden sits in this second room and consists of no more than a few photos of Winehouse on Parkway, in Rokit Vintage and in her first flat in the borough. Aside from an image of a mural outside of the Hawley Arms, the pub scene is left unmentioned. Whilst this may be understood to be an attempt at avoiding delving into Winehouse’s complicated relationship with substance abuse, Camden nightlife played more than a mere cameo in her life.
In doing so, the exhibition leaves aside a whole world of people and places that were pivotal for Winehouse. Instead, the exhibition paints Camden as suburban and safe instead of being the spoiled, nocturnal and all-inviting underworld that it can be. Whilst the exhibition is a celebration of the life and career of Amy Winehouse, it leaves visitors feeling as though some chapters have been partially redacted. The title of the exhibition ‘Amy: Beyond the Stage’ may be a sort of false promise as most of the exhibition really is dedicated to her music and fashion on the stage.
The final room of three is dominated by a layered stage featuring Amy’s clothing, a nice follow up to the few dresses that dot around the start of the exhibition. The exhibition doesn’t shy away from addressing Winehouse’s relationship with body image yet it also refreshingly celebrates the work that others, like stylist Naomi Parry, put into creating Winehouse’s iconic imagery. Finally, the exhibition ends with a kind of retelling of an Amy Winehouse performance. It juxtaposes the footage that exists of her actual final performances, which, having been viewed by over eight million people on YouTube, are riddled with commentary on her substance abuse, the effects of which plague her final moments on stage. The combined efforts of Chiara Stephenson and Studio Moross work to reimagine a performance of Tears Dry on Their Own for contemporary audiences. The effect is beautiful, forcing visitors to leave the exhibition with a final impression that Winehouse was first and foremost an incredible musician. The exhibition isn’t long but perhaps that’s the unfortunate consequence of celebrating a life and career that wasn’t either.
The ‘Amy: Beyond the Stage’ exhibition probably falls slightly short of delivering on the promise that it gives a once in a lifetime insight into the musician’s life. Whilst getting to see her own notebooks and Fender Strat (which has never been exhibited before), the exhibition doesn’t provide any novel insight into the life of Amy Winehouse. Regardless, it achieves its goal of celebrating Winehouse’s career and does so sensitively, focusing the narrative on her work as an artist and not on her personal life. It doesn’t reinvent the story of Amy Winehouse but yet is a valuable celebration of her life nonetheless. I would recommend the exhibition to many but for Amy Winehouse fans, a pint at the Hawley Arms or the Good Mixer may be just as insightful.