Dr. Tritobia Hayes Benjamin.
Dr. Tritobia Hayes Benjamin, recognized as one of the leading authorities on African-American women artists, including Selma Burke, Annie E. A. Walker, and Loïs Mailou Jones, died on June 21 after an extended illness. Benjamin served Howard University with distinction for 42 years, from her initial appointment as a member of the faculty in 1970 to her retirement in 2012.
“Dr. Benjamin was an extraordinary individual who touched the lives of many as an astute administrator, gifted teacher, thoughtful mentor, caring friend and arts advocate,” said Gwendolyn H. Everett, Ph.D., associate dean for the Division of Fine Arts. “Her imprint on the discipline of African-American art history scholarship is world-renowned.”
“Dr. Tritobia Benjamin, my Sista Toby, was a fierce warrior, the SHERO who made us all work harder to be better persons and scholars. We lived a full and rich life together as Sistas, mothers, teachers, mentors while trying always to find ways to maintain our humanity and love of life,” said Leslie King-Hammond, graduate dean emerita, Maryland Institute College of Art and chair of the board, Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture.
“I’m sorry to hear about the loss of a beautiful mind and friend,” said Deborah Willis, professor and chair, Department of Photography and Imaging, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. “She mentored most of us in the field of art history, and through her mentorship we were able to create new scholarship.”
“The fact that I can’t remember when I first met her speaks to the deep impact she has had on my life and career,” said Lowery Stokes Sims, chief curator, Museum of Arts and Design. “What I particularly loved about Toby was her definitive and very judgmental view of the world and her precise, staccato delivery of that view. That let you know that you were in the presence of a strong Black woman of great intelligence, talent and integrity. I will miss her dearly.”
Benjamin’s 1994 publication, The Life and Art of Loïs Mailou Jones, is considered the definitive monograph on the work of the artist, who served as her teacher and colleague at Howard. The recipient of several professional and academic awards, including the National Endowment of the Humanities Fellowship-in-Residence for College Teachers and the Fellowship for Faculty of Historically Black Colleges from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Benjamin also served as consultant for a Washington-Moscow cultural exchange in 1989. Professional study tours took her to Africa and Europe.
“As a professor of art history and in her other professional capacities, Dr. Benjamin can be best identified and characterized as a ‘cultural warrior.’ In this respect, she worked tirelessly to eliminate the gender divide,” noted Floyd Coleman, professor emeritus, Department of Art at Howard University. “With her scholarship and compelling abilities as a teacher, Dr. Benjamin continued to build upon the legacy of Howard University’s large roster of distinguished faculty. She now deserves a space among the great fine arts professors who have taught at Howard University, principally among them are professors James A. Porter, Loïs Mailou Jones, James Lesene Wells, and Jeff R. Donaldson.”
“As a Howard student, faculty and administrator, Dr. Benjamin embodied and demonstrated who is best from Howard University and what is best forHoward University,” said Akili Ron Anderson, lecturer at Howard University’s Department of Art. “Dr. Benjamin’s expectations for excellence were known by all. As well, her admonishments towards those practicing anything less than excellence were also known. Some of us even felt privileged to be brought before her desk for corrective instructions.”
“When Toby and I were undergraduate and graduate art history students at Howard, we spent countless hours, including holiday breaks and spring vacations, studying and researching various topics at the Library of Congress and library of the old NCFA/National Portrait Gallery. (The former is now Smithsonian’s American Art Museum) Although not at the same time, we were both graduate interns at that institution and had access to its many resources,” recalled Teresia Bush, lecturer at Howard University’s Department of Art. “I believe that her early love for learning and passionate pursuit of academic excellence became the benchmark for her life. While in graduate school at the University of Maryland, where she wrote and defended her dissertation on Howard art professor and renowned artist, Loïs Mailou Jones, Toby successfully balanced scholarly endeavors with responsibilities as a wife, mother of three and faculty at Howard.”
Dr. Benjamin was a true daughter of Howard University where she received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history. She received her Ph.D. in art history from the University of Maryland. A memorial service is being planned at a later date at Howard, but friends held a “Celebration of Life” event in honor of Benjamin’s family life, her academic and scholarly leadership in African-American art and culture, her community contributions, and her undaunting spirit at her home over the Fourth of July weekend.
Benjamin is survived by three children: Zalika Aminah, Aminah Liani, and Anwar Salih Benjamin; four brothers and sisters: Wesley Hayes, Jr. (Virginia), Grace Hayes Blagdon, Paul Hayes (Mary), and Bernetta Hayes Powell (John), and a host of other family. Her husband of 40 years, Donald S. Benjamin, DC community activist and graphic artist, preceded her in death in February 2011.
H. Patrick Swygert, president emeritus and professor in Howard University’s School of Law, in remembering his friend and classmate, said: “Toby Benjamin was (and in spirit remains) a dear friend and colleague. She will be missed by all. Now let us honor her by continuing her commitment to scholarship and nurturing the next generation of artists.”