Sadaf Foroughi, an Iranian expat filmmaker and Montreal-based permanent resident of Canada, is not the first artist who's tangled with customs bureaucrats.
But she is one of the few who can say she's triumphed in the end.
On July 30, after CBC Radio's As It Happens and a change.org petition publicized her plight, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird ordered the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) to release her work Friday, August 1.
Foroughi received a $12,000 Canada Council grant in 2012 and spent two years researching shahre farang, traditional Iranian multi-person photo viewers. Ornately constructed from sheet metal to resemble fanciful buildings, the apparatuses were often used in the era before cinema to present photos of foreign lands to children.
Unable to complete her research and build such a peep box in Canada, she returned to Iran to assemble one, which she intended to equip with her own videos.
The artist had been advised that she could bring it in, since it's a personal creation. Personal effects are exempted under the Special Economic Measures Act prohibiting trade with Iran.
But it was confiscated by customs as commercial goods when it arrived from Iran on June 30.
According to Foroughi, a rude customs agent yelled at her, "You are an Iranian and I don't care if you are an artist or not."
Despite a letter of support from the Canada Council vouching that this was an independent artwork and would not be offered for sale, a condition of the Canada Council grant, CBSA wrote in a statement to the CBC that it considered the artwork commercial goods because it was "imported into Canada for professional purposes" and because it's "destined for institutional and professional use. A grant, government or private, does not change the commercial status of a work of art."
Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development spokesperson John Babcock adds in an email to NOW, "Whether or not a specific item counts as an exemption to our sanctions is subject to legal interpretation. If the art is stopped at the border due to sanctions imposed under the Special Economic Measures Act, the importer can apply to the Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Permit Authorization Order for an exception."
Babcock states: "Canada will not apologize for standing up for the Iranian people who deserve the freedom and prosperity that they have been denied for too long by this caustic regime. We will continue to work with our allies and international partners and be forceful with Iran until it complies with its international human rights obligations. Canada will continue to hold the regime accountable."
Nevertheless, Mahrokh Ahankhah, a specialist in Iranian art and director of Toronto's Queen Gallery, the local venue for Foroughi's show, says she's brought in artworks from Iran without problems before, some of which are offered for sale. She says she hasn't had to apply for any special exemptions.
Foroughi's shahre farang went into storage and was scheduled to be destroyed after 30 days.
Facing the prospect of losing years of work, the artist has understandably been under intense stress. "I felt hopeless and helpless. I couldn't work. I had headaches," she says by phone from Montreal.
The work was slated to be exhibited in Montreal in September and at Queen Gallery in October, but those shows may have to be postponed. Foroughi doesn't yet know what damage her delicate creation has suffered. She hasn't been allowed to inspect it, and the cargo storage facility lacks humidity control appropriate for artworks.
In addition to incurring legal expenses, she must pay $3,500 in storage fees to the customs agency's cargo facility before she can pick up the artwork, money she says she doesn't have.
In a letter to Baird, she writes, "I am an independent artist and I have very limited resources. The storage cost is increasing day by day, and my artwork is in danger."
Though she hasn't received an apology from CBSA, she says she's not seeking one. Instead, she asked customs officers "to go to museums and read books about culture to understand that artists don't have a lot of money. I want them to understand cultural activities."
She invites everyone to visit her exhibit, and thanks her supporters, saying, "I'm happy to be living in a beautiful country where people care about art and culture."