- Islas y PuentesMexotica in Milledgeville, Georgia
The polyvocal art experience of 18 through 21 March 2004 was the culmination of two years of hard work by a Baldwin County, Georgia, collective of community members, as well as students, staff, faculty, and administrators from Georgia College & State University. It was the first "Arty Gras" in our small town of Milledgeville. Milledgeville is the former state capitol, before and during the Civil War, a picturesque "antebellum" town of 40,000 inhabitants in the middle of the lush Georgia pine forests. The Visitors and Convention Bureau pitches our small town in alliteration: "Columns, Capitals, and Culture." The four-day Arty-Gras included art workshops for children, poetry readings, experimental video at Larry's Giant Sub Shop, performances by the Emperor Oko Nono and the Georgia Independent Wrestling Alliance, the Oakhill Middle School Band, the Haramee African Dance Troupe, Double Edge Dance and Music, and the Baldwin High School Concert Choir, and an exhibition by Chicano artist Robert Sanchez. Nepantla, a Nahuatl word, was the exhibition title for Sanchez's haunting painting constructions, but it also described our festival-a transitional borderless space.
Mexotica was the "headlining act" out of approximately 38 hours of programming. On 20 March, Guillermo Gómez-Peña and his collaborators, Emiko R. Lewis and Michele Ceballos, planted their eclectic bone-rattling flag and proclaimed Russell Auditorium as part of their temporary and fluctuating "performance country." The seismic power of Mexotica created temblores of perceived cultural transgression that engulfed our campus and all of middle Georgia. Gómez-Peña questioned the very core of the university experience, and our relationships with our community and with each of our colleagues. The piece "haunted" the balance-or imbalance-of social power that has been set in place in the fixed cultural landscape that is middle Georgia.
One faculty member was so disgusted by what he had heard about the performance that he compared the members of the art department, and all faculty who directed their students to see Mexotica, to the scandalously abusive U.S. guards at Abu Ghraib; a student boycotted his own graduation in protest of the piece; The National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families challenged the department to a debate questioning Mexotica as an artwork; a white, male, 40ish resident of Milledgeville, interviewed on local television, remarked that this was a [End Page 154] good time to start home-based university education; and there were even rumors on campus that during our life-drawing classes, the nude models had sex as students furiously rendered their images. The letters to the editor in the local newspaper continued unabated for three months after the event, and the university listserv discussion continued for six months. The overwhelming majority of criticism came from people who failed to attend the performance; one person in particular, a professor at our university, sustained a high-energy, electronic monologue and, using only hearsay, condemned Mexotica for "having an impoverished aesthetic standard." Clearly, his knowledge of art stopped at the cusp of the 20th century; somehow our department and the festival organizers had become cultural terrorists in his mind.
Why bring Mexotica to a small town in the deep South? Our students and community deserve to have access to one of the most innovative, prolific, and internationally acclaimed and respected artists of the past 20 years; as Chair of the art department, it is my academic obligation to provide access to the highest caliber art experience possible. To even ask this question is a slur against people in and from the South; Mexotica exploded many of the mythic stereotypes of small-town Southerners.
Clear voices of reason helped to clear the cultural rubble: Dr. Dorothy Leland, our university President, explained that it is the job of the university to present a range of material and foster debate; Dr. Anne Gormly, Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Dr. Beth Rushing, Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, stated that the university does not engage in censorship; and many more contributed positively and mightily to the many discussions that grew out of the Mexotica performance.
But most importantly, our...