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Artist Sadaf Foroughi says she built most of her Iranian ‘peep box’ in Canada

The federal government has thrown another roadblock in the way of an Iranian-born artist whose attempt to complete a taxpayer-funded creation has become entangled in geopolitics and Canadian red tape.

Sadaf Foroughi, a 38-year-old filmmaker and permanent Canadian resident living in Montreal, spent two years and a $12,000 grant from the Canada Council for the Arts building a traditional Iranian "peep box," or shahre farang. The installation, a tin box resembling a castle with three peep holes for viewing images inside and standing about two-metres high, was mostly built in Canada. To complete the work, Ms. Foroughi needed to travel to Iran to view vintage peep boxes up close, then bring the disassembled parts of her work back to Canada.

However, a customs agent at Trudeau International Airport in Montreal wouldn't let her claim the cargo upon her return from Iran in June, citing Canada's sanctions against the repressive state with suspected nuclear ambitions. Her hopes were raised when Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird intervened, signing a special permit sent to her on July 30 that allowed Ms. Foroughi to claim her peep box.

But the Canadian Border Services Agency wasn't finished with her. On Oct. 30, an agency superintendent informed Ms. Foroughi by e-mail that her imported items, valued at $30, were deemed commercial merchandise, meaning she would need to register a business with the Canada Revenue Agency in order to receive them. The official said the peep box would be held until Dec. 31 – this Wednesday – "and will not be destroyed for the moment." Meanwhile, Ms. Foroughi said the item has been racking up daily storage fees of $105 for months and she would have to pay almost $10,000 to claim it, an amount she cannot afford. It's unclear what will be the fate of the item if it isn't claimed by Jan. 1.

Ms. Foroughi replied that the object was Canadian, not imported, and non-commercial, because otherwise she wouldn't have been eligible for the grant. "As a consequence, the steps you have pleasantly explained do not apply in my case," she e-mailed the CBSA two days before Christmas.

Ms. Foroughi hasn't received a reply yet. However, CBSA spokeswoman Dominique McNeely said in a statement Sunday that under Canadian law, commercial goods include artistic creations, whether subsidized or not, intended to be presented in a gallery. She said the CBSA licenses warehouses from private owners to hold items that haven't cleared customs and that questions about storage fees should be directed to the proprietors. When asked who to contact, at which warehouse, Ms. McNeely replied: "That's protected information under … the Customs Act."

"I don't care about politics at all … I'm just an artist," Ms. Foroughi said in an interview, adding the experience has left her saddened, unable to concentrate and feeling insecure about her place in a land she has called home since 2009.

"This is not a commercial object and I didn't want to gain any money with this. I don't understand why I have to suffer." Ms. Foroughi said she has had to cancel two exhibits featuring the peep box, which was to contain a looped, satirical video of the artist staring back at patrons from inside the installation, creating an experience she described as a personal, self-analytical "sort-of Freudian research into the feminine soul."

Her lawyer, Vincent Valai, said his client's travails shows public servants "do not have the proper guideline to assess the sanctions regime" handed down by their political masters. "She's an artist and got funding from the Canada Council," he said. "Why she has to register a business to get back her artifact is surprising. I'm not questioning the fact any government can pass that kind of sanctions regime. But I think the government is not doing enough to avoid the adverse consequences of the sanctions on the human rights of people who are not supposed to be targeted. At the end of the day, you're just destroying taxpayers' money."