Screenshot of a YouTube video by BBC News Turkce showcasing statues found throughout Turkey.

Turkey’s spectacular city statues raise questions about art and corruption. From Global Voices. 

Turkey is known for its plethora of historical sights and impressive monuments that offer visitors plenty to see and explore, but few are aware of the spectacular city statues standing at the entrance of Turkey’s provinces and city centers. All across the country, one can spot eclectic statues of a garlic clove, a rooster, meatballs, local desserts, walnuts, pottery, and much more, symbolizing whatever that province is famous for. The most recent addition to the list of bizarre statues a child inside of a watermelon that was placed in Turkey’s Diyarbakir province in May.

Created in honor of the region’s watermelons and the tradition of photographing babies in carved-out watermelons to highlight the size of the fruit, the statue, sparked criticism online and triggered a debate around Turkey’s penchant for bizarre statues and their hefty price tags.

According to news website Gazete Duvar, “one social media user asked the municipality to reveal the cost of the bizarre artwork, as well as the statue of a man displaying a local sweet that was unveiled at the same time. The municipality is currently run by a government-appointed trustee, who is known for extravagant spending without any transparency.”

The watermelon statue in Diyarbakir reportedly cost 4.4 million Turkish Lira ($517,000).

This is not the first time when the costs for erected statues have been questioned.

In the Turkish province of Amasya, the local mayor was quick to defend a statue of an Ottoman prince taking a selfie when an opposition politician grumbled about the waste of public funds.

In 2015, the three-meter-high, ten-meter-long T-Rex statue erected in Turkey’s capital Ankara reportedly cost 10 million Turkish Lira (with the currency exchange rate at the time, about $4 million). The T-Rex replaced a controversial Transformers statue — both statues were commissioned by the city’s then-mayor and eccentric member of the ruling Justice and Development Party, Melih Gokcek.

The robot statue was erected as part of a promotion campaign for the AnkaPark theme park (also known as the Wonderland Eurasia park). The park, which featured robots and dinosaurs was commissioned by Gokcek and cost around $750 million, according to Ahval news. But Gokcek never made it to its opening, as he was forced to step down in 2017. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who attended the opening of the park in March 2019, described it as a “symbol of pride for Turkey.” But the “symbol of pride” never lived up to its expectation, as the park was forced to shut down in February 2020 when the company charged with its management failed to pay its electricity bills.

The budget for these statues is not transparent, and is often associated with corruption at the local government level. In an interview with the BBC, Turkish city planner Meltem Parlak said that, in order for the process to be transparent, “the municipality should first consult with a sculpture maker, or organize an open contest, and then make a decision. Instead, municipalities simply assign certain companies in a so-called tender, creating an environment for corruption.”

Most of these statues are commissioned through private companies, according to the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper. But not one of the organizations contacted by the paper was willing to claim a specific statue. Instead, they too blame the municipalities for the poor work that damages the reputation of the companies. “Municipalities are not paying attention. They should consult with an artist, hire a consultant. But they don’t. As a result, we are also criticized,” said Yakup Kocak, the owner of a small studio that provides made-to-order sculptures.

Former dean of the Marmara University Fine Arts and founder of Baksi Museum Husamettin Kocan also agrees that authorized institutions have a responsibility to seek out experienced, trained artists. “If we care about the contribution of art to the city, the authorities must accept that the subject of art and aesthetics is a field of expertise and act accordingly,” he told Hurriyet in an interview.

So far, there is little responsibility or accountability for the spending or the aesthetics of such statues, which are likely to continue to trigger jokes and criticism. 

Arzu Geybullayeva is columnist and writer focusing on digital authoritarianism and its implications on human rights and press freedom in Azerbaijan.

This article was originally published by Global Voices. Reprinted with permission.