'He was in a rage' - Acclaimed artist arrested after airport assault

Johannesburg - An airline employee has spoken about how acclaimed artist Mohau Modisakeng was arrested after allegedly assaulting a woman at a Kenyan airport on Tuesday, slapping her and tearing up her passport.

Four sources told City Press how Modisakeng attacked the woman at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, while scheduled to board a 3.55pm flight to Johannesburg, on his way home from Zanzibar.

A fellow passenger said: “He was in a rage ... I was genuinely concerned he was going to kill her.”

Lawyers for Modisakeng (32) deny that he did any such thing. He represented South Africa at the prestigious Venice Biennale last year and has won numerous awards for his work that examines how the violence of the past impacts on black life today.

“We confirm that we act on behalf of Modisakeng and [the woman] in this regard,” attorney Sabeeha Moolla said in a statement.

“Mr Modisakeng has confirmed that an argument ensued, but unequivocally denies all allegations of abuse in this regard. This was a private issue ... and in no way resulted from a jealous rage.”

But eyewitness accounts contradict this.

SAA spokesperson Tlali Tlali said: “We confirm that there was an incident of disruptive behaviour that occurred. What appeared to be a disagreement between the two passengers turned violent and in the process the passport of a female traveller was torn.

“The police were called in and witness statements were taken. After deliberations with the police and a representative of the South African high commission in Kenya, SAA allowed the female passenger to travel to Johannesburg and provided all the required assistance to her.”

Moolla says the woman “denies ever speaking to any passengers on the flight ... and certainly did not confirm any allegations of abuse”. City Press, however, spoke to two passengers who insist they spoke with her about the abuse both at the airport and on the flight.

“She said he was very jealous and paranoid,” said one. They told City Press the incident involved an interaction with other men at the airport.

“She said this had happened before,” said another source.

Moolla said: “[The woman] further objects to any third party finding it appropriate to tell her story on her behalf and in the process disempowering her and placing her and Mr Modisakeng under public scrutiny.”

A passenger said he had tried to intervene in the argument between the two.

“[Modisakeng] was furious, saying to her: ‘Is this how you want it to go? Stop lying. Let’s go outside.’ He was talking in Sotho and Zulu, saying: ‘We will deal with this.’

“I went up to them and said: ‘Eita bra, calm down, you need to relax.’ He turned to me violently and told me not to involve myself. I backed off to go through the gates to where we would board. They hadn’t gone through the gates yet.

“He started getting more aggressive. She was moving away from him, to the Swissport counter. She was gripping it, terrified, her knuckles white. Eventually they let her through the gates, but not him. He started shouting in protest that he wasn’t allowed to go through.”

The eyewitness claims Modisakeng started “knocking on the glass, threatening me, pointing. Then he comes back round to the gate and shouts: ‘I know what you’re trying to do.’ Later I was told his name.”

Police then detained Modisakeng.


It was soul star Simphiwe Dana who set Twitter ablaze this week when she labelled Modisakeng an “abuser” and apologised for helping get him off the hook in Kenya.

In an exclusive statement to City Press, Dana said: “I received a call to help a family friend and I was told that he had been arrested for disorderly conduct and damage of property. This I was told by him. He sounded really scared and I felt sorry for him. So I reached out to someone and helped him. I think it needs to be known that the communication was very sparse as he, of course, was in jail.

“My sister and I proceeded to call the victim and only managed to get hold of her the next morning. She told me the real truth and I was horrified and angry that Mohau lied to me and made me an accomplice to abuse. I decided to name him right there and then. Perhaps my wording could have been better, but I’m intrigued that there are those who are questioning my integrity.”

Twitter users lambasted Dana for helping free an alleged abuser.

“My intentions are being deliberately misconstrued,” she said in her statement. “Now I feel I should have just kept quiet because there was no way of it being known that I helped him, so no, I wasn’t doing any damage control by exposing him. I was doing the right thing and naming an abuser. And I would do it again because it is in my nature to fight abuse.

“Perhaps it’s because I apologised. Maybe I shouldn’t have because it gave people the idea that I deliberately saved an abuser and then tried to cover my tracks. I protected the integrity and identity of the victim and focused on putting the perpetrator on blast. So I don’t know how anyone can rationally draw these parallels.”

But Moolla rejects Dana’s claims: “The allegations of abuse put forward by Dana are unfounded and constitute defamation.”


Four prominent art figures told City Press about outbursts of anger and verbal abuse from Modisakeng at exhibitions around the world.

It was particularly at the world’s most important art show in Venice that he is accused of reducing workers and colleagues at the South African pavilion to tears.

Modisakeng allegedly screamed at them, claiming he was being disadvantaged and treated as inferior to the white artist chosen to represent the country with him, the internationally acclaimed Candice Breitz.

Breitz was unavailable for comment.

Another artist said: “In the past year or two Mohau has been growing more and more famous – and with it more and more verbally reckless and abusive.”

Modisakeng’s lawyers did not respond to the art figures’ allegations.

(Modisakeng performing Inzilo)

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