Minnie, Emily and Molly Pwerle sit with their legs tucked under them on the back porch of a weatherboard house in Alice Springs, and paint. They hardly look up when I arrive. The elderly women are, I'm told, deep in the Dreamtime as they daub and stroke acrylic paint into vivid patterns on linen. It is about 50 degrees in Urultja, where the women live, so they have moved temporarily to the more temperate 40-degree climate in Alice Springs.
I traipse inside the house and step on a large wet painting lying on the floor, smudge the linen and trail the paint through the room as I rattle off a dozen sorrys.
"No worries," Barbara Weir says as she picks up the ruined artwork and places it out of harm's way. "We'll fix it later."
Weir, 62, is the daughter of Minnie and niece of the three other artists who will be showing the best of about a year's work in an exhibition titled The Pwerle Sisters at the Flinders Lane Gallery in Melbourne.
A noted artist, Weir started the project with her son Fred Torres, an art dealer.
Artists from the Urultja community in the Western Desert have been an important part of the contemporary Aboriginal art movement since Emily Kame Kngwarreye, who died 10 years ago, came to the attention of collectors and institutions in the 1990s. The celebrated artist, who painted somewhere between 8000 and 10,000 pieces, was Minnie's sister-in-law.
The sisters (including Gayla, who didn't make it to Alice Springs) undertook their first workshop in late 2004 at the Urultja outstation and now 300 paintings have been completed - none have previously been released. Minnie, the eldest woman at 90, is the only sister to have exhibited before. She started painting about five years ago and has become one of the most collectable artists in the region.
"They don't change so fast, this mob, money never changed them," Weir says. "They still go bush, hunting, still live the way they were living, except they have a better car."
Although a lot of artists from Urultja do dot paintings, all four women paint linear works of abstract patterns and symbols, but in different styles. Minnie paints broad, luminescent flowing lines and circles; Molly's lines are free and simple; Emily paints smaller, crossover shapes to create a busier picture. Each strike of the brush depicts a ceremonial body marking used in dance.
"All their styles are distinct," Torres, 37, says. "They all look very different but it all tells the same Dreaming."
Aboriginal women seem to be more accepted as artists than Aboriginal men. They paint simple things, often food - bush tucker, fruit, seeds - whereas men paint the sacred and the ceremonial, which they don't like to talk about. According to Weir, women also have a greater capacity to sit for long periods.
A blue tarpaulin shields the women from the wind as they shuffle around their paintings. Minnie eats chicken and chips as she paints, but Emily and Molly refuse to eat until they finish their work. A huge Esky filled with bottled water and soft drink sits against the wall but the women have the capacity of camels.
They appear almost mesmerised as they make their marks. They talk to each other in their language about the story they are painting and about the old days and their family, sometimes laughing, but mostly there is silence. Weir sometimes offers encouragement as Torres mixes paint.
The women complete a painting in about three hours and put down their brushes late in the afternoon. In the evenings they sprawl on blankets, talking to children and cousins sitting with them. They unravel kangaroo tail from plastic wrap and cook it in the earth.
Collectors are invited to travel to the Urultja region and watch the artists at work in the bush.
"We have fun with (the collectors)," Barbara says, "We do dance with them.
"The (Pwerle sisters) have fun - they met so many people who have camped out there with them - before they never mix with anybody.
"Mum's sisters hardly had anything to do with the Europeans before. They still live in a humpy."
A dealer from Cairns arrives one afternoon; he squats down and asks his companion to photograph him with the artists. They continue to paint, oblivious of him. In the kitchen he talks with Torres and Weir, haggling about prices for about an hour. Torres repeatedly rejects his offers as an insult to the family but the dealer haggles on. In the end the dealer says he'll deal direct with the artists. Torres isn't worried. He knows his grandmothers will only deal through him.
"They're not afraid."
Torres says many dealers have driven to the Urultja outpost to try to intimidate or dupe the artists, , stuffing $100 notes into their hands for work that is sometimes sold later for thousands. Torres supplies about a hundred members of his family with linen and paint and he buys all their paintings whether or not he can sell them on.
"I want everyone to have been paid by the time they walk away from the project," he says, "There are certainly artists that don't make the grade so I still buy the work to encourage them, but I tell them how to improve the artwork to make it more saleable."