Carolina Loyola-Garcia holding a camera
Carolina Loyola-Garcia’s photographs of hands became a solo exhibit at Pittsburgh International Airport. Photo by John Beale.

On any given day Carolina Loyola-Garcia might choose to involve her imaginative energy in singing, flamenco dancing, video designing, printmaking, filmmaking, acting or guiding her students at Robert Morris University, where she’s taught media arts since 2004.

Most likely it will be a scintillating mix of several.

Her expressive bounty stems from early exposure to opera and poetry. But, says the Highland Park resident and native of Santiago, Chile, it was also shaped by early awareness of social inequities in the world around her.

“My father was an opera fanatic, and when I was 12 years old he took me to see Bizet’s ‘Carmen,'” she recalls. “Even at that age, I was struck by Carmen’s personification of a strong-willed woman worker who suffers and pays the ultimate price due to her pride and social standing.”

Her mother would recite literary classics to the family, and Loyola-Garcia remembers being especially moved by “Hombres Necios” (“Foolish Men”), a 17th-century poem advocating for women’s rights by Mexican author Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

What fueled her enduring artistic commitment, however, was coming of age during the violent military dictatorship that ruled Chile during the 1970s and ’80s. 

“Growing up in a country suffering human rights abuse, censorship and limited personal freedoms was not lost on my teenage self,” she says. “I naturally gravitated towards music and other arts of resistance.”

“Hands” is a series of photographs by Carolina Loyola-Garcia on display at Pittsburgh International Airport. Photo courtesy of Carolina Loyola-Garcia.

Fusing multiple art forms to examine questions of social justice has been her focus since coming to Pittsburgh in 1997 to earn an MFA at Carnegie Mellon University.

Over the last two decades her videos and installations have been featured at galleries and festivals across the U.S. and in Mexico, Canada, Cuba, Europe, Asia, Africa and South America spanning topics as diverse as war survivors (“Flesh of the Fallen”), politicization of water (“Fragile”), immigration (“The Other Land/El Otro Lugar”), labor strife in El Salvador (“Untold Coffee Stories”), emotional intimacy (“Map of Love”), environmental crises (“Deliciously Disposable Earth”), purification and spirituality (“The Need to Wash the Self with Milk and Honey”), memory and retrospection (“Overlapping Memories”) and cultural heritage (“Sobre las Olas: A Story of Flamenco in the U.S.”).

Loyola-Garcia balances the abstract nature of her visual craft with frequent live performances; she’s a popular singer and dancer with Alba Flamenca and Uptown Quartet and has appeared in several roles with Quantum Theatre.

Her most recent projects include “Hands,” a solo photography display at Pittsburgh International Airport, and a fall group show at McDonough Museum of Art in Youngstown, Ohio, with fellow members of the Pittsburgh-based #notwhite collective.

She also received a 2023 Illuminate Award from the World Affairs Council for her work as an educator advancing global mindedness and connection in the Pittsburgh region. 

Carolina Loyola-Garcia at her computer.
Carolina Loyola-Garcia works in her office at her Highland Park home. Photo by John Beale.

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NEXTpittsburgh: How did the “Hands” photo series originate?

Loyola-Garcia: It started by “chance,” as projects often do. I was in Iceland, and the first image, of my partner’s hand in blue water, appeared to me. Literally appeared to me. It was an interesting image in the moment, and I captured it without any intention of it becoming part of a project. 

Later that same year, I was visiting my mother in Chile. She has Alzheimer’s and had just been moved to a nursing home. While I was sitting with her, in the shell of her former self, I noticed her fingernails had been done quite nicely. I grabbed her hand to admire how beautiful they looked. 

It was striking to me feeling her small hand in my hand. It felt small, fragile … and the inevitable truth of her aging and physical decay struck me hard. It took me back to the memory of my mother as a larger-than-life presence holding my hand as a young girl and how safe and loved I felt by her holding me.

I was profoundly moved, and I took a picture to hold that moment in my memory. That became the second hand. The following year, as I was thinking about work for a new exhibit, those two images jumped at me yelling “SHOW US!” And the “Hands” series started.

NEXTpittsburgh: What a remarkable moment of life inspiring a completely new direction in your art.

Carolina Loyola-Garcia dances in her studio.
Carolina Loyola-Garcia, a native of Chile, performs in the studio where she teaches dance at her home in Highland Park. Photo by John Beale.

Loyola-Garcia: I continued photographing hands, of people close to me at first. I have since expanded to hands far and close. I keep adding hands to the series as interesting moments make these images appear to me.

The airport’s public art program has been a fantastic opportunity to display the work on a large format in such a public place. I keep getting messages from friends and colleagues while they are at the airport, sharing their impressions of the work. It’s been great! The folks at the airport running the program are so committed to what they do and are making the airport an outstanding place for art. The perfect gallery!

NEXTpittsburgh: How did you get involved with #notwhite collective?

Loyola-Garcia: I have been a member of #notwhite collective from the very beginning, before it actually was a collective. It started as a meeting of like-minded women in the arts looking to share and discuss our experiences as immigrants, multiracial individuals of various configurations, with various sexual orientations and lives. 

We were summoned by the great Madame Dolores into conversation. One of the aspects that brought us together was a common feeling of being caught in the invisible middle ground of the racial/gender/binary discussion and the need to create a communal voice united by a culture of care. 

It has been a fruitful collaboration with a group of remarkable women, and I am extremely grateful to have been included in that first email summoning the troops back in 2016.

NEXTpittsburgh: What influence has your participation in the collective had on your work?

Featured photos from “Hands” courtesy of Carolina Loyola-Garcia.

Loyola-Garcia: It opened me up to a deeper way of understanding my own creative practice and work on decolonizing my own sense of self. Certain structures of self-censoring and patterns that have been present and installed by both family and society have become more evident to me as I journey on this path of healing and understanding.

I feel that as a result of the years of discussion, camaraderie and artmaking with #notwhite collective, I have become a more compassionate teacher, a better partner and a more inclusive individual in how I practice and share my work.

NEXTpittsburgh: A new perspective, even for an artist like you who already draws on so many diverse sources.

Loyola-Garcia: Perspective defines which side of an event you are looking at. History is written by humans, therefore it’s subjective, full of missing information, usually narrow in its scope. I cannot divorce my practice as an artist from these ideas and from the awareness it has given me. My interest in finding meaning and trying to understand human nature and its experience is what fuels my creative work.

One of the beauties of devoting myself to an art practice and the teaching of it, is the continuous “encadenamiento” — the chaining or linking of ideas, knowledge, aesthetic propositions through time past and present. It is the realization that we each are part of an endless stream … that we are because of others and after others, as well as before those who will follow. 

L.E. McCullough is a Pittsburgh musician/writer/journalist with a lifelong curiosity about who, what, when, where, why and especially how.