Authorities in Iran have confiscated the passport of prominent Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli, who suspects he is being targeted for featuring an image of a woman on the cover of his new book. Tanavoli, who holds both Iranian and Canadian citizenship, had attempted to leave Tehran’s international airport on July 2 to fly to London, where he had a scheduled talk and signing at the British Museum for his new book, European Women in Persian Houses. However the immigration police, as Tanavoli related to Hyperallergic, told him that he had “some issues that [he had] to sort out” before he could leave the country.
Officials directed him to the passport office, where, after three days of visiting and waiting without answers, he was finally told he will have to appear in court on Saturday. The court that will hear his case is distinct to Iran, established for the purpose of monitoring print media.
“I don’t have any clue what it’s about,” Tanavoli said, speaking by phone. “It seems to have to do with my publication because the subject is about European women and paintings — but it’s done very tastefully. The announcement was a picture of a woman on the cover of my book, so I think maybe that’s the issue, and they didn’t want me to participate in [the British Museum talk.]”
Published by the London-based press I.B. Tauris, the tome examines a trend that emerged among Iran’s wealthy in the 19th century: the collection and household display of prints of beautiful Western women. Many were, as per the book’s description, “dressed in — by Iranian standards — elegant and revealing clothing [that] must have sparked much curiosity and some titillation among well-to-do merchants and aristocrats who felt the need to create some association, however remote, with these alien creatures.” The front and back covers of Tanavoli’s book feature mid-19th-century paintings by Jean- Baptiste-Adolphe Lafosse: on the front, a sable-haired woman wearing a sheer dress that reveals her left breast; on the back, another brunette playing with a bird, dressed in a low-cut garment.
“Of course I am hopeful about my case,” Tanavoli told Hyperallergic. “I haven’t done anything wrong. These are old pictures from the 18th and 19th centuries, found in houses that are considered heritage buildings. I didn’t do anything illegal. This book is not published in Iran. It’s in English, for a European audience. I wanted them to learn about this subject. I am not worried about what I’ve done, but I have to go to court and found out what it is.”
Considered one of Iran’s leading and most influential artists, Tanavoli is primarily known for his bronze sculptures that draw on the forms of calligraphy, but his rich artistic practice extends into paintings, prints, neon works, and more. He is a pioneer of the Saqqakhaneh movement of the 1960s, along with Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Sadeq Tabrizi, and Masoud Arabshahi. It is recognized as the first school of Iranian modern art, with its associated painters and sculptures incorporating elements from Iranian folk art into their creations.
Besides holding the title of the Middle East’s most expensive artist at auction — his sculpture “The Wall (Oh Persepolis)” (1975) sold for $2.8 million in 2008 — Tanavoli often exhibits internationally. Last year, the Davis Museum celebrated his six-decade career by hosting his first US museum retrospective; a number of his sculptures went on display a few months later at the Tate as part of its The World Goes Pop exhibition. More recently, New York University’s Grey Art Gallery featured paintings and sculptures from his famous Heech series in its survey of six Iranian artists.
Besides making art, Tanavoli is also a prolific writer who has published dozens of books over the last three decades on topics from Persian flatweaves to Iranian padlocks. Following his scheduled talk at the British Museum, the artist was also supposed to deliver a lecture at London’s Asia House on July 4 on the role of the lion in Iran. The talk was a preview to his exhibition opening next March at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, The Lion in Iran and the Art of Parviz Tanavoli.