Three must-read books for art history students Tuesday, 01 March 2022

A few years ago, we launched our interactive A level History of Art course. Since then we have seen students of all ages from all over the world enrolling to further their passion for art history and gain a qualification not often available in mainstream schooling.

Whether you are studying at A level with NEC, have continued on to undergraduate level or just have a casual interest, here are three books that are must-reads for art history enthusiasts.

The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk About It

Alice Procter

“How to deal with the colonial history of art in museums and monuments in the public realm is a thorny issue that we are only just beginning to address. Alice Procter, creator of the Uncomfortable Art Tours, provides a manual for deconstructing everything you thought you knew about art history and tells the stories that have been left out of the canon.” – Hachette (2020): https://www.hachette.co.uk/titles/alice-procter/the-whole-picture/9781788401555/

I listened to this one on audiobook and was hooked from the start. By concentrating on one piece of artwork per chapter, Alice Procter manages to clearly draw a line between the colonialism and empire, and the issues in museums today. Who does a piece of artwork belong to?; the creator? The country of origin? The finder? I would recommend this to anyone who wants an introduction to the topic of colonial history and museums.

Out of the Sun: Essays at the Crossroads of Race

Esi Edugyan

“As in her fiction, the essays in Out of the Sun demonstrate Esi Edugyan’s commitment to seeking out the stories of Black lives that history has failed to record. Written with the death of George Floyd and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement in the background, in five wide-ranging essays Edugyan reflects on her own identity and experiences as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants.

She delves into the history of Western Art and the truths about Black lives that it fails to reveal, and the ways contemporary Black artists are reclaiming and reimagining those lives. She explores and celebrates the legacy of Afrofuturism, the complex and problematic practice of racial passing, the place of ghosts and haunting in the imagination, and the fascinating relationship between Africa and Asia dating back to the 6th Century.” – Serpent’s Tail (2022): https://serpentstail.com/work/out-of-the-sun/ 

I read this one over the whole month of January, really taking my time and letting each of the essays sink in. Out of the Sun explores visual art, literature and history through the lens of race, with the author bringing experiences from her own upbringing. It is so contemporary in its placement, written against the backdrop of civil unrest and the murder of George Floyd, I think this is a book has a depth and emotion that Esi Edugyan also imbues in her fiction.

Esi Edugyan will be talking to the National Gallery about the book on 25th March in an online event: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/events/esi-edugyan-out-of-the-sun-on-race-and-storytelling-25-03-2022

1000 Years of Joy and Sorrow

Ai Weiwei

“Chinese dissident. Ground-breaking artist. Global icon.

Here, through the sweeping, extraordinary story of his own and his father’s lives, Ai Weiwei tells an epic tale of China over the last 100 years.

He recounts a childhood in exile in a desolate place known as ‘Little Siberia’, his move to America as a young man and eventual return home, then his rise from unknown to art-world superstar and international human rights activist – and how his work has been shaped by living under a totalitarian regime.” – Penguin Books (2021): https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/110/1101497/1000-years-of-joys-and-sorrows/9781847923509.html

Ai Weiwei’s memoir is a tale of determination, resilience and creativity. For NEC A level History of Art students in particular, this book will give even more context surrounding the artist and the last century’s worth of Chinese history. For others, it is a beautifully written memoir that explores what it means to overcome hardship to live a full and complicated life.


If you want a more comprehensive list of resources and reading materials, please visit the Association for Art History website: https://forarthistory.org.uk/latest-news/resource-portal-on-anti-racism-and-decolonial-approaches-to-art-history-and-visual-culture-2/ 

Charlotte Jones is the Marketing and Communications Executive at the National Extension College. She is also studying towards an undergraduate degree in Arts and Humanities with the Open University.

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