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Parviz Tanavoli stands next to his sculpture, Heech Lovers, outside his West Vancouver home studio in January, 2015.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

An acclaimed Iranian-Canadian sculptor barred from leaving Iran says he is saddened by the impact the ordeal is having on his ability to promote Middle Eastern art and culture on the world stage.

Parviz Tanavoli, who was born in Iran and divides his time between Horseshoe Bay and Tehran, was headed to London from Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport on Saturday when he had his passport confiscated and was told he could not leave the country. As of Tuesday, Mr. Tanavoli was still waiting for an explanation.

"Every day I go to the passport office, from morning until the end of the day, and they keep telling me, 'Soon, we will let you know what you did wrong, what the problem is, why we detained you,'" the 78-year-old artist said in a phone interview from Tehran, where he owns a home.

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Mr. Tanavoli said officials at the passport office told him the matter isn't politically motivated but wouldn't say much else.

While little known in B.C., where he has lived for 27 years, Mr. Tanavoli is one of Iran's most well-known contemporary artists and is considered by some to be a cultural ambassador for the country. His works are the most expensive of any Iranian artist; in 2008, his bronze sculpture, The Wall (Oh, Persepolis), fetched $2.8-million (U.S.) at Christie's in Dubai.

Mr. Tanavoli had been travelling to London to lecture at the British Museum and Asia House when his passport was confiscated.

"These kinds of projects, that have to do with the culture of Iran, they can create better relations between people in Iran and the rest of the world," he said. "It bothers me a lot that they don't care and don't give any importance to this kind of work. … It makes me very sad. They don't realize that this is very good for the country."

Mr. Tanavoli said he is not worried for his safety – it's possible the issue will be resolved quickly, he says – but he is saddened to have missed the two lectures.

The sold-out British Museum event, which was to be a celebration of his new book, European Women in Persian Houses, went ahead in his absence.

The uncertainty of his situation also makes it difficult to prepare for future exhibitions, including one planned in Vancouver, he said.

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"I can't deny it: Yes, I am [worried]. I don't like to be in [this situation] because you can't plan for anything; you just have to wait every day. Anyway, I am very optimistic about getting my passport back soon."

Global Affairs Canada has been in touch with the artist's family and is prepared to provide consular assistance, the department said in a statement.

Lilian Broca, an artist who specializes in large-scale mosaics and a close friend of Mr. Tanavoli's, described him as a fantastic artist who is very proud of his country and his culture.

"In his art, his culture is very prominent," Ms. Broca said in an interview. "He uses a lot of motifs, a lot of poetry and arabesques, parts of the [Persian] alphabet."

His signature sculpture series depicts the calligraphic script for the Persian word "heech," which means "nothing."

Mr. Tanavoli has clashed with Iranian authorities before. In 2003, he sold his home – and nearly 60 pieces of his artwork – to the city of Tehran so it could be turned into the Museum of Parviz Tanavoli.

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But shortly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected mayor, he ordered the museum closed.

"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. The artist got his house, and some of his artwork, back after a years-long battle.

With a report from Marsha Lederman

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