It’s hard not to talk about Clyde the Big Red Indian as if he is an actual person. I thought it was just me, but everyone I talk to eventually starts speaking of Clyde as if he has his own identity. That’s the impact of a strong visual image.
The headdress-wearing, literally red, literally plastic Indian toy is the main figure in a series of prints by Mvskoke (Creek) artist Bobby Martin. Recently, the Clyde prints have been chosen as the signature artwork for Beyond the Spectacle: Native North American Presence in Britain.
Beyond the Spectacle is a multidisciplinary research project that explores the impact and challenges stereotypes of Indigenous people in England. Principal investigator David Stirrup, professor of Native American Studies at the University of Kent, said the researchers first met Martin when he was among several Native artists who exhibited and participated in a print action at the project’s conference. (Other artists included Tony Tiger, Marwin Begaye, Jacob Meders, Roy Boney Jr., Jackson 2bears, and Janet Rogers as 2Ro Media.) Stirrup said Clyde immediately caught the attention of the researchers.
“We happened to know of Bobby’s work with Clyde and saw a piece that featured Clyde, Godzilla-like, up to his thighs in Venice’s Grand Canal on his Facebook page,” says Stirrup. “As soon as we saw it we realised that it spoke to a number of the themes our research project is interested in: Native presence in the UK (and Europe), the gap between the ‘spectacle’ and the reality of Native representations in the UK, public misconceptions and stereotypes, and of course questions of decoloniality. We asked Bobby whether he had considered doing any London-based prints, as the question of what it means to be exploring these issues at what is often called the Heart of Empire are clearly potent. His answer was that he’d literally just started on the image that he has kindly allowed us to use. We’re thrilled to be working with Bobby, and hope that other collaborations both with him and other artists will be possible during the course of the project.”
Shortly after Clyde was chosen, Martin contributed a post to the Beyond the Spectacle blog that details his process of creating the Clyde prints which feature our hero in a setting meticulously based on engravings from an English travelogue from the 18th century.
“Clyde’s origins are pretty murky,” says Martin. “I first (re)discovered him at my mom’s house in a bedroom strewn with old toys: G. I. Joes, Barbies, various other vintage kid stuff. I’m sure he was a childhood toy of mine and my brother’s, although my memories are almost entirely G. I. Joe, I don’t really remember playing cowboys and Indians at all. Apparently, he stowed his way into my studio at some point, but I don’t know exactly how or when. He eventually came to live on a shelf in my studio at Punkin Hollow in Tahlequah[, Oklahoma], then later held court atop my etching press in my new space in West Siloam Springs[, Arkansas]. The name Clyde is a recent addition when I got back from London last summer with an idea to promote him to a starring role in a new artwork adventure.”
“Clyde was a natural choice for a name,” explains Martin. “My paternal grandfather was Raymond Clyde Martin, who was a school superintendent at Onapa, a tiny Creek town between Checotah and Eufaula. I inherited ‘Clyde’ from him as my middle name. I loved my Papa (Clyde) dearly, but growing up I was none too happy with a middle name like ‘Clyde.’ I’ve eventually come to terms with the name, though. I feel like naming my art alter-ego ‘Clyde’ is in someway finding peace with a part of my identity that I’ve always been a bit ashamed of.”
When I first showed the original Clyde piece at the Santa Fe Indian Market, out of the several hundred visitors who stopped by my booth, several were from the UK,” Martin writes via email. “It seemed they were the ones who were the most entertained by the humor and irony (although it did sell to an American couple). Maybe it’s because Americans are so numb to the ‘casual racism’ of Native stereotyping, compared to other parts of the world, that they just don’t get it the same? I mean, I found Clyde amongst the toys that I played with growing up! I’ve always struggled with what it means to be ‘Indian.’ Although ultimately I am extremely proud of my Mvskoke heritage, the identity issue is something I’ve wrestled with my whole life. The idea of Native identity, especially I think in Oklahoma, is fraught with inconsistencies and controversy, from both within and without. I’m not sure yet what Clyde has to say about that, but when he becomes available for an interview you’ll be the first to know.”
Martin recognizes that Clyde is part of a long legacy.
“I know I’m not breaking any new ground with Clyde, as there have been plenty of other artists, Native and non-Native, who have used visual stereotypes as devices to point out the dehumanizing aspects of lumping peoples together as the ‘other,’ ” Martin says. “But for me, it’s become much more personal with Clyde. I think he’s still finding his (my) voice, and I appreciate the stage Clyde has been given to speak. We’ll have to wait and see what opinions he shares in the future.”
You can follow Clyde on Martin’s Instagram, Facebook, or website. In June, Beyond the Spectacle is hosting a gallery show at Rainmaker Gallery in Bristol, England, as part of a symposium about the project, and Martin’s print Clyde at Tower Bridge will be featured, along with a few other Clyde prints. For more on Beyond the Spectacle, follow the project’s blog.