My work is rooted in rich traditions of the Chokwe and Luba peoples of Angola and DR Congo. While the stories they tell are complex, they are designed to be simple, serene, and to bring peace to their surroundings.
step by step
Júlio T Leitão
In 1975, my hometown had become the front line of the Angolan civil war. At nine years of age, I found myself fleeing Angola on foot, on a journey of almost 500 miles that took me through the bushes and swamps, from Luena to Maeba, Zambia. For months my family was divided, having fled in many different directions. In 1976 we were reunited in Portugal, where I remained until 1985, relocating to New York that same year. In New York City, I saw—and felt—the sense of separateness that circumscribed peoples of African descent, and their struggle to reconcile their lost and often forgotten cultural heritage with geographic identity. To help bridge that divide, I began teaching African dance to children, informally, in playgrounds in Harlem. In 1990, I founded Batoto Yetu (Swahili for ‘our children’), a nonprofit that provides pre-professional African dance training and performance opportunities to inner city youth. Our young dancers have performed around the world, sharing the stage with legends like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, and appearing on national TV. More than 25 years later, Batoto Yetu continues to thrive, and my work in sculpture and mask-making continues to feed my soul and draw a personal connection between me, my ancestors, and my ancestral home.
At-risk youth require an inner strength to achieve success, a drive that cannot come from academics alone. Engaging children with their own African heritage through dance, music, and folklore promotes a more holistic form of education and one that makes great contributions to the confidence, character, and academic success of children.