Roland Gunst, a.k.a. John K Cobra, (* 1977) is a conceptual artist, filmmaker and musician of Belgian-Congolese (D.R.C.) descent, living in Flanders and South Africa. From an autobiographical perspective, he experiments with the potential of hybrid identity and Afro-European stories, inspired by the concept of Afropeanism, in response to conflicts and tensions between black Africa and the white West. Afropeanism is an attitude that values hybridism, transculturality and transnationality. It examines these issues through the prism of the history of African-European relations since the birth of men in Africa and their migration around the world.
Gunst researches similarities in concepts and forms in the material and immaterial culture that have been developed separately in Europe and Africa, but point to the common origin and human experience of Europeans and Africans. Gunst uses these spaces of similarity, what Prof. Cecil Fromont called "spaces of correlation" to blend European and African cultures to create a new, transcultural tradition. Among his sources of inspiration are the intercultural exchange between Europe and Africa since 1500 that has shaped both continents; the Congolese-Portuguese creolisation of religion, art and political structures in the Kingdom of Kongo from 1500 and the transcultural character of the Congolese conception of identity.
Gunst creates disruptive hybrid concepts and forms to reflect on the boundaries that define identity, culture, human condition and history. He is inspired by African and European art history, anthropology, psychology, philosophy and mythology.
His journey in developing strategies for body and identity liberation and for emancipation from the monocultural, ethnic and nationalist identity discourse in Europe has evolved in 4 major phases since 2009. Phase 1 investigated extreme assimilation by developing a therapeutic procedure (including the use of a white face mask) to guarantee the assimilation of Flemish people of foreign descent into white Flemish society. Phase 2 transformed the weapons of white nationalism and radicalism via white, Flemish, cultural symbols such as the Flemish flag and the founding myth of the Flemish nation. He imagines the Congolese colonisation of Flanders and the forced application of the current assimilation policy of the government to the Flemish, to reconnect Flemish people with Afropeanism and to strive for the construction of an Afropean community in Flanders. Phase 3 was the transformation of the Flemish identity into a plurality of identities by means of a transformation ritual, based on Flemish and Congolese cultural traditions, in which Lady Flandria, an allegory of the Flemish identity, transforms into a hybrid creature with Afro-European facial scarifications. Phase 4 examines different types of the persona of African Sacred Clowns and European court jesters who are fluid beings with a fluid gender, ethnic, cultural and national identity that transcends all notions of identities.
As a conceptual artist, Gunst works with different art forms (installations, performances, objects, film, mixed media, photography) according to the needs of a concept and the desired interaction with the audience. He works with symbolic materials that are "spaces of correlation" between Europe and Africa: human hair, copper, rubber and wood. All are symbols of power, used in strategies of colonial rule and anti-colonial and anti-capitalist cultural resistance. Rubber is a new fuel powering an Afropean future.
His earlier works include the lecture opera performance 'Flandria', staged in 2019 in performance arts centers in Belgium, the lecture performances 'The Reign of Afropeanism 1.0 and 2.0' (2017 and 2018) and 'Veller' (2013) and the documentary film 'Colour Bar' (2011). He is now working on 'Tropical Bungalow' (experimental film with a VAF grant), a reconstruction of Congolese colonial history as a repetitive ritual and a polyphonic performance with a focus on the perspective of Flemish women and Congolese, inspired by the strategy of cultural resistance of the 1950s Hauka movement in Niger. In the series 'Sacred Clowns' (films, installations & performances) he explores fluid identities through the character of sacred clowns or court jesters, critical voices who challenge authority, values and norms to conceive a new reality and society. The latter two projects will be developed and presented in several major Belgian art centers as well as at a residency at WorkspaceBrussels and at the Centre of the Less Good Idea (research center for performance arts in Johannesburg), the conference 'In Whose Place' at WITS University (Johannesburg), the EUROPE exhibition in Mucem (Marseilles, France), the Museum for Central Africa (Tervuren, Belgium), the Gulbenkian Foundation (Lisbon, Portugal) and at Latitudes Art Fair 2020 (Johannesburg).
Gunst is an artist and researcher involved in the Critical Network BEyond PARTicipation, a four-year European research project of 9 performance art festivals aimed at developing a better understanding of the interrelationship between power, politics, place and audience in art practice.