RODNEY TERICH LEONARD, a gregarious jack-of-many-trades, adores a crowd. His annual birthday tributes to the singer Nina Simone, held in his exquisitely restored duplex in a West Harlem brownstone, are the talk of the neighborhood. So are what he calls his “salons,” lively events celebrating the Harlem arts scene. He can entertain 80 for cocktails without breaking a sweat.
Yet even after the last guest has drifted away, Mr. Leonard is not alone. Imposing creatures with bulging eyes and mops of crinkly hair stand like sentinels, staring out at the world with baleful expressions. Figures decked out with colorful beads and bright feathers lurk in out-of-the-way corners, as if the apartment were their domain rather than their owner’s.
These are Mr. Leonard’s African masks, fetish objects and protection pieces, collected through dealers and his own extensive travels over two decades. He speaks about them with such affection, even tenderness, he might be describing adored members of a large extended family.
“I wake up to this art,” he said the other day as he stood in his living room, surrounded by his army of unlikely companions, “and the experience is utterly transporting.”
Mr. Leonard, who is 40 and has lived in West Harlem ever since he came to New York in 1994, moved to his current apartment three years ago. The 2,200-square-foot space, for which he pays $3,675 a month in rent, reflects his passion not only for African art but also for the giants of African-American culture. A large black-and-white photograph of the writer James Baldwin, his lips curled in an almost coy smile, hangs in the study. Some of Mr. Leonard’s nearly 2,000 jazz LP’s lean against a wall. Betty Carter’s rendition of “Can’t We Talk It Over” floats from the CD player.
Mr. Leonard, looking natty this day in a black blazer set off with a pocket scarf, his dreadlocks swept back in a ponytail, traces his sense of style to his Alabama childhood.
“We didn’t have much money, but my mother had a wonderful aesthetic, a wonderful eye,” said Mr. Leonard, who grew up the youngest of six in a single-parent home. “I remember that she belonged to a linen club, and every month we’d get something new — one month beautiful sheets, another month linen napkins. Of course we didn’t use the napkins. We just admired them.”
Mr. Leonard has kept many reminders of his years in the South, among them the iron comb with which his mother straightened her hair, and he can recite word for word her instructions for preparing the comb: “Put it on the stove, count to eight, turn it over, count to eight again.”
Mr. Leonard also inherited his mother’s eye for detail. At 16, he recalls, when he opened a charge account at Grave’s Furniture Store, a local emporium, his first purchase was a pair of cerulean blue Japanese candlesticks.
After four years in the Air Force, Mr. Leonard turned his hand to jobs that involved easing other people’s lives, among them banquet captain at the Tribeca Grand Hotel and stints as butler and house manager for various bold-face names. He now runs a company called R.T. Leonard Salon that he describes as an “aesthetic and lifestyle consultancy.” Need some contemporary art to perk up your walls? Someone to plan your trip to the island of Mauritius? Mr. Leonard says he’s your man.
When it comes to an aesthetic lifestyle, Mr. Leonard has no lack of opinions. And his highly eclectic tastes are on vivid display in his own quarters.
A Victorian settee covered with wine-colored brocade dominates his guest room, where furnishings include a pair of orange vinyl chairs from the ’50s that fit in unexpectedly well. Lengths of Kuba cloth from Congo, woven of red, gold and navy raffia, hang on a wall in the living room. The living room sofa, discovered at the Sloan-Kettering Thrift Shop, is a midcentury piece upholstered in a black and gold fabric with an Asian motif.
“The moment I saw that sofa, I knew it would fit in perfectly,” Mr. Leonard said. “I snatched it up so fast, you wouldn’t believe it.” This day the sofa is dressed with orange and silver pillows; on another occasion, the pillows might be green. It all depends on his mood.
The stars of the apartment are the masks, which were created for ceremonial dances. A wooden mask from Congo with a fluffy beard made of copper-colored raffia and a rectangular face with empty, half-moon eyes sits on the coffee table. A mask from Cameroon with slitlike eyes, a sharp nose and bulging squirrel cheeks stands on a pedestal. (Those cheeks make Mr. Leonard think of Dizzy Gillespie.) A mask from Gabon, as spare as a piece of modern sculpture, lurks nearby, its vacant eyes set in an elongated head that culminates in a minuscule mouth.
“And here’s my baby,” Mr. Leonard said, pointing out a protection statue from Cameroon adorned with black feathers and metal button eyes that might have presided at the entrance of a home to bring good fortune. “She’s new in the family.”
A female protection piece outfitted in a beige and brown cat suit made of netting, hands planted jauntily on hips, exudes even more personality. “She’s gorgeous, no?” Mr. Leonard said. “She would definitely give Grace Jones a run for her money.”
Keeping company with the masks and statues are a menagerie of animals, many of them as charming as children’s toys.
A wooden elephant from Liberia stationed in front of the living room fireplace is equipped with a working tail. An equally handsome mahogany goat from Nigeria stands near the fireplace in the dining room, though flecks of dried blood, an indication that the animal was used in connection with ceremonial offerings, are slightly unsettling. A terra-cotta camel from Nigeria occupies the guest room.
Mr. Leonard loves all his inanimate companions. But once in a while, he likes to rearrange things. “They’ll be leaving soon,” he said as he gestured to a cluster of tall, thin ebony statues from Gabon that stand at the head of the stairs. “They’re attractive, but they don’t bring the joy they used to.”