Editor’s Note: The following story contains mentions of sexual assault and harassment. To reach the National Sexual Assault Hotline, call 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.
An artist who performed nude during Marina Abramović’s 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan is suing the museum, alleging that exhibition staff did not adequately protect him from multiple instances of sexual assault. John Bonafede, who performed in Abramović’s “Imponderabilia” (1977/2010), claims that he was subjected to multiple instances of nonconsensual groping by patrons and that MoMA “failed to take corrective action” to protect the performers and to “prevent further sexual assaults from occurring.”
Hyperallergic has contacted MoMA, Marina Abramović, and Bonafede’s attorney for comment.
For “Imponderabilia,” Bonafede and a female performer were required to stand across from each other, nude and completely motionless with locked gazes, at the threshold of a narrow passageway that museum visitors were encouraged to pass through to traverse between the sixth-floor museum galleries. Throughout his involvement in the performance work, Bonafede alleges that he endured seven instances of museum visitors, whom he specified were all “older males,” groping or intentionally grazing his genitals and that he witnessed his female counterpart being assaulted as well. (The female performer is not a plaintiff in the current lawsuit.)
Prior to the exhibition opening, Bonafede outlined that he and several other performance artists hired to participate in the Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present (2010) retrospective attended a preparatory retreat at Abramović’s Upstate New York residence. During the retreat, Bonafede expressed that present MoMA staff and Abramović herself instilled a “tough it out” culture when communicating the potential for attendee transgressions against performers, with Abramović citing examples of being assaulted during her own endurance performances throughout her career.
Bonafede recalled that he didn’t report the first incident of sexual misconduct he experienced at the beginning of the exhibition, stating that he opted to keep his head down after one performer allegedly had their contract terminated after the opening night of the retrospective for being unable to remain totally motionless.
He did report the following four incidents, and another was reported by a MoMA security guard who witnessed the assault against Bonafede in real time, according to the lawsuit.
Assaults against the exhibition performers were well-documented and widely reported by a variety of major news outlets throughout the retrospective. The museum publicly acknowledged that it was “well aware of the challenges posed by having nude performers in the galleries,” and soon developed a codified signaling system for performers to rely on if they felt unsafe or threatened by attendees during the show.
However, Bonafede alleges that while the museum visitors who assaulted him were immediately ejected from the premises, and that one of them who was a corporate member had his membership revoked, the museum did not provide him with their identities.
Bonafede’s suit was filed in accordance with the New York Adult Survivors Act that removed the statute of limitations for sexual assault litigations for a year from November 2022 to November 2023.