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Nude artist sues New York’s MoMA over sexual assault claims

The performer says the Museum of Modern Art failed to take action after he was sexually assaulted multiple times by attendees

Kevin E G Perry
Friday 26 January 2024 01:49 GMT
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Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy - trailer

A performer who appeared naked in an exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art is suing the museum, saying it failed to take action after he was sexually assaulted multiple times by attendees.

The performances occurred nearly 14 years ago as part of a show by world-renowned performance artist Marina Abramović.

The suit was filed by John Bonafede in Manhattan on Monday under the New York Adult Survivors Act, a state law that suspended the usual time limit for accusers to sue.

Although the law expired last year, the suit says the parties agreed to extend the window closing.

Mr Bonafede alleges he was sexually assaulted by five members of the public onlookers while performing as part of Abramović’s retrospective “The Artist Is Present.”

The work, titled “Imponderabilia,” saw Mr Bonafede and another performer standing face-to-face with each other in a doorway about 18 inches (45.7 centimetres) apart, fully nude, silent, and still. The exhibition, which ran from 14 March 2010 through 31 May 2010, was curated by the museum in a way that encouraged visitors to pass in between the performers as they went from one gallery to the next, the suit alleges.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art

The people who assaulted Mr Bonafede were mostly older men, the suit says. One of the perpetrators was a corporate member of the museum, who was ultimately kicked out and had his membership revoked, according to the suit.

During the final weeks of the exhibition, another attendee non-consensually groped Mr Bonafede’s private areas three times before they were finally stopped by security, the suit said.

Mr Bonafede reported four of the individuals to the museum staff and security immediately, according to the suit, while the fifth was witnessed personally by the museum security staff.

At one point, Mr Bonafede also witnessed a public attendee sexually assault his female co-performer by kissing her on the mouth without her consent, the suit said.

Prior to the exhibition, the performers had voiced their concerns about nude performers being subject to harassment in a letter to the museum during contract negotiations, the suit said.

Once it began, several news outlets including the New York Times reported on the inappropriate behaviour by visitors, and the sexual assaults on “Imponderabilia” were discussed within New York City’s art and performance communities, the suit says.

But despite the museum having knowledge of the issue, it failed to take action to protect the performers and prevent further sexual assaults, such as telling visitors ahead of time that touching was not allowed. the lawsuit said.

About a month into the exhibition, the museum created a handbook outlining protocols for the performers to alert museum staff if they felt unsafe or were inappropriately touched.

Mr Bonafede agreed to continue the performance after he was assaulted because of the “tough it out” culture of the exhibition, the suit says, but suffered for years from emotional distress, and his mental health, body image and career were damaged as a result.

Mr Bonafede‘s lawyer, Jordan Fletcher, said they will be seeking a jury trial and compensatory damages.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

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