Gem Melville – hand painted textiles and a colourful life!

The talented Gem Melville was born 1949, in Vryheid, South Africa where she lived and worked until 2001.
She has focused on textiles since 1992, working in collaboration with Zulu Women in community projects in KwaZulu Natal. SA, which profoundly influenced her work, along with South African culture. She describes herself as ’an artist with an essentially western perspective’.

“I was born in Vryheid (an Afrikaans word meaning freedom) in 1949, a small town in the province of KwaZulu Natal. My parents were typical colonial farmers who had bought a farm a stones throw from the famous Kruger National Park…………….a park we were privileged enough to visit frequently, and which ingrained in us three sisters an enduring love of the bush and wildlife.

My father was a Scot whose origins trace back to the “black Scots” from the Orkney islands (hence my claim to have Spanish origins: the survivors of the Spanish ship “Armada”were washed up on the shores of the Orkneys where they inter-married with the Scots). My mother has French-Huegenot and English ancestors: apparently,the latter can be traced to Guy Faulks who tried to blow up the English parliament. Let that suffice as evidence of a thoroughly mixed background typical of many South Africans. I am known amongst friends and family to have a phenomenal sense of smell, so, small wonder that I ended up here in the very southern part of the Pyrénées Orientales and virtually on Spain’s doorstep. …………… I followed my nose……….back to my origins.

In South Africa I spent several years teaching general art in secondary schools, until my two sons Andrew and Duncan were born in 1975 and 1978 respectively. After a short interval of staying at home I returned to teaching: first, at the then “whites only” Natal Technikon where I taught drawing and sculpture, and later at the M.L. Sultan Technikon where I taught Drawing and Illustration to Textile, Clothing and Textile students. This institution became a leader in allowing an intake of all races at a time when South Africa was still under the apartheid regime. It was a dynamic and turbulent time to teach as South Africa underwent the transformation from Apartheid into a democracy. I was fundamentally changed by this experience of multi cultural teaching.
In 1992 I resigned from my lecturing post and started a textile training project with Zulu women called Pakhamani Textiles.. This project catapulted me into the limelight as I inadvertently became part of a movement focussed on job creation in small N.G.O.’s

[( “Gem Melville has long been associated with the training and empowering of women through design development and craft work- particularly in the context of women affected by HIV/Aids.”
Nicky du Plessis: consultant and project manager to many NGO’s in S.A.)]

Pakhamani was my passion until 2001 when I left South Africa to live in France.
Five months before my departure, I was travelling with a fellow consultant to attend a meeting of young international consultants in Northern KwaZulu, when barely 10 minutes before reaching our destination, we were held up on an appallingly rutted dirt road by two armed men. We were hauled out of the front seats,thrown onto the back seats, and told to keep our heads down. It’s a long story: we were abducted and driven at first at break-neck speed along tar roads, then off onto dirt roads and finally straight into the bush to a famous ravine notorious for killings. My friend and I lay on the back seat, and unknown to either of us, we had both decided to meditate and surround ourselves with white light in preparation for the violence we anticipated lay ahead of us.

En route, I happened to glance up and caught the eye of the co-driver. I held his gaze………….and was suddenly overcome with compassion and felt he was the victim of something bigger than we could comprehend. (Coincidently, a year ago, whilst flying en route to France, in search of a house to buy; I was reading“Conversations with God”….and read a passage which discussed that” acts of violence perpetrated against victims could be a means to transcend the violence and be in a state of grace”. I felt a chill up my spine………closed the book; threw it into the luggage hold overhead and thought: “this is a pre-warning……….I am going to be a victim of violence”………..and promptly forgot about it.)

We arrived at “the destination”as the sun set……………. ……..I said to our abductors:” leave us here; and take all we have: the car, cash, cell phones, watches, suitcases of clothes, and a brand new computer”. They hauled us out of the car: placed us side by side…put their guns to our heads and said:”run! run!”……………….We ran towards the ravine fully expecting to be shot in the back…………… we reached the ravine………..turned right, and ran along a dry river bed.
We heard the car revving…….then grind its way back through the bush………and silence…………! We hugged each other with joy! Exultant! Alive! It was night; it was suddenly cold……………….we only had on shorts, t-shirts and sandals……….,we ran along animal tracks through the bush in the light of a full moon…………to find help.

I firmly believe that “my moment of compassion” led to the transcendence of the act of violence…and that my friend and I are alive today because we changed the dynamics of violence through meditation

Armed to the hilt with my South African experiences, I arrived in Céret in August 2001. In 2006 I moved to Reynes to live with Jean Chazarenc.

I am now firmly ensconced at the foot of the Pyrénées, in a house with a wild garden on the banks of “le Tét”.with a garage/studio. I run creative workshops and teach groups or individuals hand painted textiles.

I have had several exhibitions in France and in Barcelona since settling here. The most significant being a Documentary Textile exhibition in 2007 in The “Museu di Textil Terrassa/Barcelona. Es.
I am currently sharing exhibition space with Helle Frosterod, on 25 September to 11 October in the Espace Pierre Mau in the Saint Roch Ateliers, 4 Boulevard LaFayette CERET
This exhibition showcases works from the textile collection of the Terrassa exhibition with several new works. This is Helle Frosterods first exhibition of ceramic figure sculptures. Helle is a Graphic designer from Norway, now living in Céret with her husband Hendrik who is a translator of novels.They have lived in France since 2000.

[(“Melville’s work is strongly influenced by her collaborative work with Zulu women who collectively produced a range of contemporary textiles under her direction, which draw upon the rich and varied symbols of a multi-cultural society”.
Carole Brown: curator Durban Museum. S.A.)]

[( “In her current drawings and paintings; parallel to producing textiles; Melville creates her own visual language of disparate styles, objects and influences. She merges everyday objects, texts from old books, fragments of /and reference to her textiles, to European and Indigenous artefacts.”
Clare Bywater: curator of Melville’s textile collection in the “Museu di Textil Terrassa/Barcelona. Espagne.)]

I return to South Africa annually to renew my source of inspiration; yet I seek to integrate my “Africaness” with new perceptions and experience in France.

[(“Textile designer, and now painting and drawing, her life and work are marked by her multi-cultural origins”.
Nicky du Plessis:consultant and project co-ordinator:)] S.A.

– Gem also runs hand painted textile workshops for groups or individuals. These vary from one- day workshops, week end workshops,and regular weekly sessions.
– Mosaic, drawing, painting and surface decoration are offered as “group projects”, where individuals needing direction, or who have lost confidence in their creativity, can work collaboratively.
– Courses for individuals and groups in a range of art activities: painting; drawing; mosaic and sculpture
– Commissions for exclusive wedding table linen and general textiles for interiors:commercial/domestic
– Visitors welcome to visit atelier by prior arrangement.

tel 0033 (4) 6887 2595
cell: 0033 0646887760
address: Route de las Quintanes. 66400 Reynés)]

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