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Iranian-Canadian sculptor says he's been barred from leaving Iran

Artist Parviz Tanavoli, outside his home studio in West Vancouver in January, 2015.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

A renowned Iranian-Canadian sculptor who is considered a rock star among his peers says he has been barred from leaving Iran.

Parviz Tanavoli, who divides his time between B.C.'s Horseshoe Bay and Tehran, said he was about to board a flight to London from Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport on Saturday when he had his passport confiscated and was told he could not leave.

"I went to the passport office and spent the whole day there and asked everyone for help, but it was of no use," he wrote in a statement posted to his Facebook page by his daughter.

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"However, my daughter's calls to some of the art and culture authorities at the Ministry and at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art brought them into the scene. I am deeply grateful to them. Although I still don't know why I am here and when I will be able to leave."

Mr. Tanavoli, who was born in Iran, was scheduled to speak Sunday at an event at the British Museum celebrating his work. Though little known in B.C., he is considered one of Iran's most important contemporary artists. In 2008, his bronze sculpture, The Wall (Oh, Persepolis), sold for $2.8-million (U.S.) at Christie's in Dubai.

Since Saturday, the artist, who is in his late 70s, has maintained contact with friends and family through frequent, if short, e-mails. Friends describe him as being calm and in okay spirits, but no closer to understanding why he cannot leave.

Friend Lilian Broca, currently in Toronto, said Mr. Tanavoli wrote in an e-mail that he was told the reason was not political.

"That's what they told him when they went to the passport office," Ms. Broca said Monday. "But they didn't [say anything else]. To me, it doesn't make any sense."

Ms. Broca said the artist is very proud of his country and culture, incorporating its poetry and motifs into his work. Much of it is created in Iran, where it is cheaper to cast his large sculptures.

Filmmaker Terrence Turner, who completed a documentary on the artist with Timothy Turner, called Mr. Tanavoli a "rock star" and "the Henry Moore of Iran," a reference to the famed British sculptor known for his abstract bronze and stone figures.

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Mr. Turner called Mr. Tanavoli an erudite and understated man whose work speaks for itself, and said the artist seemed hopeful about his predicament.

"He's sort of an optimist, so no matter what happens he's always thinking that everything's going to be fine, which is a good way to be," Mr. Turner said.

Global Affairs Canada has been in touch with his family.

"We are aware of reports of a Canadian citizen being prevented from leaving Iran," the department said in an e-mailed statement. "Canadian consular officials stand ready to provide consular assistance."

Mr. Tanavoli has had run-ins with Iranian authorities before. In 2003, Mr. Tanavoli sold his house to the city of Tehran, which was to turn it into the Museum of Parviz Tanavoli. The sale included nearly 60 Tanavoli works. But a few months after the museum opened, it was shut down by the city's new mayor – Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-liner who went on to become Iran's president.

"He said this was a Western derivation and not our culture and he closed down my museum," Mr. Tanavoli told The Globe and Mail in an interview last year.

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The artist got his house back, along with a few of his sculptures, after a years-long battle.

With a report from Marsha Lederman

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Based in Vancouver, Andrea Woo is a general assignment reporter with a focus on multimedia journalism. More

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