Initially she trained as a sculptor in Durban. She taught drawing and sculpture at the Natal Technikon (now the Durban University of Technology) and later at the former ML Sultan Technikon where she taught drawing and illustration to textile and fashion design students.
In 1992 she established a textile community project for Zulu women in Durban and named it Pakhamani (the Zulu word meaning to uplift) as part of a movement focused on training and job creation. It started out as a textile co-operative and later became an NGO. Under Gem’s tutelage Pakhamani was one of the first women’s co-operatives in South Africa in the 1990s to utilize original and indigenous designs developed through a process of abstraction.
Through the ages, African women have used a variety of methods and natural pigments such as mud, sorghum paste, boiled bark and leaves to decorate fabrics. Building on this foundation, Gem Melville introduced into these fabrics brush applied commercial dyes and the innovative use of starch resist technique thereby transforming a time-honoured process into a modern idiom. Describing the Pakhamani fabrics, Gem Melville says:
I was influenced by the Memphis movement, which originated in Milan in 1981. Like them [the artists of that movement] I wanted to break with tradition and conventions, so I set out to create textiles that carried the signature of local culture in South Africa; that did not reference international textile trends…….nor rely on touristic images of the great FIVE.
I was inspired by the graphic surfaces imposed on classic pieces of furniture, which characterized the Memphis movement, and decided that graphic marks, developed in a slow process of mark -making by individuals in the Pakhamani group, would underpin the style we developed.”
Throughout her career Gem focused mainly on textiles; but recently she returned to painting and drawing, using mixed media. And in May 2013, Melville began manufacturing hand painted pumps and a retro sandal, using archival swatches from the 1992 Pakhamani collection, in addition to recreating new designs with a more contemporary feel.
Gem Melville has exhibited widely in South Africa, the UK, France and the USA. In November/December 2007 her work was exhibited in Spain on the major exhibition of hand painted textiles held at the Centre de Documentatio I Museu du Textil de Terrassa in Barcelona.
Her work is represented in museums and private collections in South Africa and abroad.