Artist Sues MoMA Over Sexual Assault During Performance

Painter and performance artist John Bonafede sued the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Monday, alleging that it intentionally and negligently failed to take action to prevent recurrent sexual assaults against him during a nude performance at the museum in 2010, though it had actual knowledge of ongoing assaults against many exhibition performers.

Bonafede performed live in the MoMA exhibition, “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present,” for its full run, from March 14 to May 31, 2010. One of his duties was to perform a piece entitled “Imponderabilia,” in which two nude and silent performers stand face-to-face in a doorway. Attendees were invited to walk in between the performers to move to the next room, often turning their bodies sideways to move through the 18 to 24 inches of space. The complaint asserts that Bonafede was sexually assaulted seven times in the exhibition by five different attendees and reported four attendees to MoMA staff and security immediately, while the fifth was allegedly directly witnessed by MoMA security staff. One attendee, according to the complaint, completed three trips through Imponderabilia, sexually assaulting Bonafede each time. One of these assaults was allegedly caught on camera by a crew that was filming his performance.

During the exhibition, local and national news outlets such as the New York Times, NBC News, the Guardian, and the New York Post reported that Imponderabilia performers were being sexually groped by attendees. Bonafede asserts that he witnessed an attendee non-consensually kiss a female performer on the mouth and had several conversations with performers about sexual assaults of other male performers by attendees. MoMA developed a protocol to alert security when attendees assaulted performers and “a MoMA staff member was specifically tasked with assuaging Imponderabilia performers after they had been assaulted.” Performers also raised harassment concerns in writing to MoMA during contract negotiations before the exhibition, according to the complaint.

Before the exhibition, Bonafede and other performers, as well as a MoMA representative, stayed at Marina Abramovic’s home for five days to train and prepare. Their training included fasting, remaining completely silent, and not using running tap water to bathe. The performers were also shown footage of Abramovic performing her older works. In one work, Abramovic’s face was slashed with a knife by an audience member and her blouse was ripped open by another. According to the complaint, Bonafede understood that performers were expected to “tough it out” during live performances. However, the complaint asserts, he never expressly or implicitly consented to the sexual touching that occurred during the exhibition, nor was there a legitimate purpose for such touching.

Further, the complaint states, the museum changed other aspects of the pieces before and shortly after the exhibition opened, including shortening shift lengths of certain nude or durational performances and widening the Imponderabilia doorway so that attendees using wheelchairs could pass through.

The suit was brought under the New York Adult Survivors Act (NY CPLR § 214-J) and its retroactive revival window, which provided people who have experienced certain sexual offenses as adults a one-year window to revive otherwise time-barred claims. 

Additional Reading

MoMA Sued by Artist Who Performed Nude in Marina Abramovic Work, The New York Times (January 24, 2024)

Artist Who Performed in the Nude at MoMA’s 2010 Marina Abramovic Exhibition Sues the Museum, ARTnews (January 23, 2024)

Bonafede v. MoMA Complaint

Image Credit: Erika Cross /