When Public Statues Go Very Wrong
This giant chicken will attract tourists! Let's honor a heroine of our history with a see-through dress! And other very visible bad ideas around the world...
From Mount Rushmore to Lenin's statue at Saint Petersburg’s Finland Station, political legacies have long been carved into stone, literally. But sometimes the vanity or silliness driving such projects turns them into monumental WTFs. That was undoubtedly the case last month in the U.S. state of Georgia, where a local mayor was ousted from office after pushing through a project to build a giant chicken as a way to attract tourists to this town.
But the list of grandiose ideas that fell flat, or worse, is long: from the racy likeness of an Italian heroine to the immortalizing of a corrupt African leader who isn't even from your country.
Here’s a global tour of some of the world’s most puzzling statues and what they reveal about the politics behind the facade.
Georgia mayor's massive chicken
The giant chicken imagined by former Mayor Jim Puckett, stopped mid-construction
Jim Puckett, the mayor of Fitzgerald, Georgia, was not playing chicken when he decided to construct the world’s largest topiary. The project was inspired by the wild Burmese chickens that run around the town. The mayor's dream to build a tourist attraction (including a live cam showing building progress) soon turned fowl.
The project has so far cost the town some $291,000 and became a point of contention during the recent mayoral election. Pucket ended up losing by a whopping 95%, and now the uncompleted 19-foot-tall bird literally casts a shadow over Fitzgerald.
Still, Pucket said he doesn’t regret the project, which he hopes the new administration will finish and convert into an Airbnb. As Pucket told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “The voters obviously don't see the importance of that, but they knew going in.... One of the very few things I promised them was that you might not like everything that I do, but you're never going to say I sat around and didn't do anything.”
Symbol of Italian pride over-sexualized
"The Gleaner of Sapri" statue in her see-through dress
The goal was to construct a statue honoring the heroine of “La Spigolatricen di Sapri” (“The Gleaner of Sapri”). The 1857 poem written by Luigi Mercantini depicts the female gleaner who joined the Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane's failed campaign against the Kingdom of Naples. But instead of being praised for honoring their country’s literary heritage, authorities in the province of Sapri faced criticism for the statue’s see-through dress. Many politicians, pointed out that her appearance took away from the deeper meaning of the poem.
Laura Boldrini, a member of parliament with the center-left Democratic party, told EuroNews that the monument was "an offense to women and to the history it is supposed to celebrate." Still, the city’s mayor, Antonio Gentile defended "La Spigolatrice" on Facebook, writing it’s a “very important work of art which will be a great tourist attraction for our town.” For his part, the sculptor, Emanuele Stifano, said he was “appalled and disheartened” by the criticism and that he tries not to hide the human form, for both his male and female sculptures.
Dog tribute in Turkmenistan
Turkmenistan President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow is well known for his lavish taste (and dictator-esque tendencies). Since becoming president in 2007, he has transformed the capital Ashgabat into the so-called City of White Marble, as it holds the world record for the highest concentration of white-marble buildings, including the white palace where he lives.
Amid rampant human rights accusations facing the leader of the former Soviet Republic, Berdimuhamedow decided his next publicity stunt would be a statue of his favorite dog breed, the Alabai, a variety of the Central Asian shepherd dog. (He loves Alabai so much he even wrote a book about them in 2019.) The gold leaf-covered dog has a wrap-around LED screen showing videos of puppies. And it isn’t even Berdimuhamedow's first gold statue; in 2015, he commissioned a monument of himself riding his horse White Khan, mounted, of course, on a nearly 70-foot tall column of white marble.
Gigantic Guan Yu
Statue of Guan Yu in Jingzhou Park, China
In recent years around China, politicians have invested in large-scale “signature buildings” to set their cities apart. One of the most striking is a 58-meter, 1,200-ton statue of Guan Yu, a widely worshipped military figure from the third century Eastern Han Dynasty. These “white elephant” monuments are often more aimed to score political points than benefit civilians. While Jingzhou, the central city where the Guan Yu statue was built, used to be a strategic hub linking northern and southern China, its development has lagged behind coastal cities since the launch of economic reforms a generation ago.
City policymakers hoped Guan Yu — portrayed in the 14th-century Chinese classic "The Romance of the Three Kingdoms" as a righteous and loyal warrior — would draw tourism to Jingzhou. This gamble, which came with a ¥1.5 billion ($232 million) price tag, proved unsuccessful, with the park housing the statue taking in only ¥13 million ($2 million) since it opened four years ago.
Now, the Chinese Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development has ordered the relocation of Guan Yu, stating it "ruins the character and culture of Jingzhou as a historic city" and is "vain and wasteful." On top of the initial cost to taxpayers, the relocation project added some additional ¥300 million ($46 million).
Statue of South African president… in Nigeria
Statue of South African President Jacob Zuma in Nigeria
In 2017, residents of Nigeria's Imo state were surprised when South African President Jacob Zuma marked his visit to the region with a giant bronze statue… of himself. The man behind the statue was Owelle Okorocha, a millionaire and at the time, the governor of Imo. The monument garnered not only confusion, but also criticism for both its price tag (520 million Naira or $1.4 million) and the man who it honors. coincidence would have it that during President Zuma’s trip to Nigeria, the South African Supreme Court decided that he would face corruption charges. (Zuma is now out of office and was sentenced to 15 months in jail in June 2021.)
Critics said the money should have gone to helping Nigerian people, most notably addressing socio-economic needs in Imo. While the two leaders agreed to work together to help send African children to school, it seems no such philanthropy came out of their meeting. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t go un-commemorated; Zuma was also honored with a road named after him and a local chieftain title.