5 Unexpected Cultural Finds in Orlando

Immerse yourself in entirely different cultures at these off-the-grid spots.

It sure is a small world in Orlando, where a multicultural community invites visitors to experience bits of lifestyles from around the globe, current and past. Here are five standouts.

Bronze Kingdom

It’s rare for anyone to see the bronze sculptures created and used deep within Africa’s tribal lands. It’s more rare for dozens of those items to be on view in one location. Yet in an Orlando industrial park, the museum/gallery hybrid Bronze Kingdom displays 300 such pieces at a time in a sprawling space. The display is part of the 2,000-plus item collection of tech executive Rawlvan R. Bennett, whose treasures come from 29 countries. Some pieces date back 350 years.

Bronze Njimom Collection

Bronze Kingdom began modestly and has grown to include the largest display of African bronzes in the world, according to Bennett. Touched deeply as a young African-American man by single wooden mask from Africa, Bennett grew to be an active collector. He spent years developing the relationships necessary to attain these elusive pieces; he often bartered for them, trading help such as bridge-building in exchange for a coveted statue.

Today, visitors can see authentic tribal chief thrones, fertility statues, and a 12-foot horse and rider, plus vivid reproductions of chained people captured for slavery. All items are for sale. Staffers are happy to share information, and group tours are available. $10/$5

New Concept Barbershop and Art Gallery

Take in art by Puerto Rican artists living in Orlando at New Concept. And, hey, get a specialty haircut while you’re at it. New Concept is two enterprises in one: an old-fashioned barbershop specializing in creative hair sculpting, and a contemporary art gallery that is also headquarters for an organization called Puerto Rican Arts Diaspora of Orlando.

New Concept Barbershop doubles as an art gallery

Owners and barbers Gabriel Marrero and Angel Rivera, who is also an artist, provide intricate hair designs amid an ever-changing display of paintings and sculptures. The artists get exposure to their creations for free, the barbers have interesting decor elements, and visitors gain access to a no-fee art gallery, which is open to all during regular business hours. The artwork at this strip mall enterprise spans several genres, including Rivera’s own pieces, which are abstract expressionism. All pieces are for sale. “We wanted to create awareness about Puerto Rican art, to raise consciousness of what Orlando’s Puerto Rican artists have to offer,” Rivera says.

Pioneer Village at Shingle Creek

Long before the theme park executives and ages before the citrus barons put Central Florida on the map, Native Americans made the Orlando area their home. In a remote plot of Kissimmee, visitors can experience thatch-roof huts called chickees just like those the Seminoles used.

Chickees, open sided dwellings used by the Seminole Tribe

Four of the open-sided structures are on display in a cluster, representing an extended family’s outdoor living quarters with two bedrooms, a kitchen and a family room. Members of the Seminole tribe built these using authentic techniques and materials; the actual Seminole population was a blend of Amerindians and escaped slaves.

Visits to the Pioneer Village at Shingle Creek reap more than a brief Native American immersion, however. The property has eight buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as four masterfully built recreations of structures from that time. Homesteads, a railroad depot, a church and a citrus processing facility are among the edifices on display. $7/$3

The Hindu Temple of Central Florida

Hidden among subdivisions in a suburban neighborhood, the Hindu Temple is a step into India. Driving up, you’ll see ornate carvings jut from the roof. Together with the rest of the building, constructed in 2005, the towers are typical of South Asian architecture, a mixture of Chola and Naga styles. The main tower, the Rajagopuram, is 55 feet high.

Carving on The Hindu Temple in Orlando

After removing their shoes,  parishioners pray inside the Mahamandapam, or Great Hall. Visitors are free to walk around and visit the nine individual shrines, each devoted to a single deity, or representation of Brahman (God). One called Ganesh looks like an elephant. It is depicted with a mouse, which represents a person’s never-still mind. A female likeness in sparkly attire is the 12-handed deity Durga, or Cosmic Mother. She sits on a tiger and clutches weapons, representing her ability to protect followers by destroying demons.

A small canteen offers light bites, and a meditation hall hosts studio authentic yoga and meditation classes. Call 407-699-5277 to arrange a tour, or simply show up and ask to look around. Free

Fo Guang Shan Guang Ming Temple

The Fo Guang Shang (Buddha’s Light Mountain) Gjuang Ming Temple is a religious institution near the Orlando airport, but it also offers a sliver of Taiwanese life. The temple is one of about 200 spawned from the original, begun in Taiwan by Venerable Master Hsing Yun back in 1967.

Fo Guang Shan Guang Ming Temple

At the heart of the main shrine is a white marble Buddha statue, made in Chinese Tang Dynasty style, along with Dharma instruments such as the drum-and-bell, Big Gong and Wooden Fish. Lotus blossom-shaped chandeliers hang from the ceiling; the lotus represents purity, since the plant grows from mud yet is not contaminated by it.

Visitors are free to stop in and ask for a complimentary tour. In addition to the shrine, they’ll see small framed metal recreations of protective warriors, a serene Memorial Hall with light granite cremains drawers, a teahouse selling Asian brews and cookies, an outdoor garden with an Amitābha Buddha at the center, and a lotus garden with yet more religious sculptures. Free

Rona Gindin
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