Luis Mario Gell hadn’t planned on returning to Havana. In Rome, where the commercial photographer had lived for a decade, his career had been booming; he shot images for brands like Hermès and Dior. But in 2012, after his brother left Cuba to study as a concert pianist, Gell came home to look after their mother. To make ends meet, the then-34-year-old shot portraits for quinceañeras, 15-year-old-girls’ lavish birthday parties. The work didn’t fulfill him, though, and he dreamed of building an art space instead. “I hoped to capture the youthful energy,” he says. “Coming from Rome, with its Colosseum and forts, I understood that if you want to impress, you must go big.”
The city he’d returned to resembled the one he had left, at least superficially: The streets were grandiose and dilapidated, with the cobblestoned gracefulness of Barcelona, the deco flashiness of Miami and the deterioration of Detroit. Everywhere, the paint – breezy turquoise, yellow and pink – was salt-stained and peeling. It frequently gave way to raw concrete and stone.
But if the buildings seemed tired, there was a new energy in town. The president, Raúl Castro, had reformed the communist system to lift the country’s dreary economic prospects. A robust private sector had taken shape – people were working their own land and eating in family-owned restaurants. There’d been a change of power in Washington, too. Once the Obama administration made it easier for Americans to travel to the island, an influx of visitors appeared – not just people spilling off cruise ships, but also curators, gallerists and design lovers.